IN EARLY MARCH, I stopped in New York City to celebrate Ornette Coleman’s 90th memorial birthday party hosted by his son, Denardo. The event honored a musician whose wide-ranging influence has gone far beyond the world of music. The reality of a pandemic had barely penetrated into the body politic that Sunday afternoon. By the following Friday, Broadway theaters were closed, flights canceled, and borders were shutting down. Day and night, ambulance sirens screamed down nearby Seventh Avenue, in the heart of the COVID-19 hotspot.

Patti Smith and Ornette perform for friends at his 2007 birthday party. Photo: Kathelin Gray.

Two months into lockdown, the nine-minute broadcast of George Floyd’s murder incited a worldwide movement. Floyd and Breonna Taylor were the latest deaths by racist serial abusers and killers, ongoing for hundreds of years in the Americas. Black Lives Matter protestors streamed down those same blocks of Seventh Avenue, chanting, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!,” to join thousands who crossed over the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges to gather in Lower Manhattan.

At first I bunkered from the sirens, and then I joined the protests.

Professional gangs took advantage of citywide demonstrations and looted for two days. They’d send scouts out during the day to monitor neighborhoods and then strike quickly at specific times, in SUVs with rented trailers for their stashes, parked near the bridge and tunnels to New Jersey. Macy’s department store in Herald Square, two blocks from Ornette’s home, was stripped bare. In the weeks that followed, plywood covered storefronts throughout Manhattan.

I am still here. In a world city I have called home in years past, I witness a pandemic epicenter, BLM protests, and now a cautious and anxiety-ridden reopening. The specter of economic chaos casts long shadows on emptying streets. November’s election looms large and scarier by the moment. Last year, Donald Trump filed a declaration of domicile, changing his legal residency to Florida. No wonder, New Yorkers know him better than anyone.

One afternoon, I walk downtown to Battery City Park and look out over the Hudson at the Statue of Liberty, which bears an inscription, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” “I can’t breathe!” were the last words of Floyd and so many other victims, murdered in police chokeholds. Meanwhile, politicians demonize refugees.

Amid this citywide alternation of lockdown boredom, anxiety, passion, and mayhem, I join Denardo in his father’s former studio, where Denardo edits, films, and records for his project to expand Ornette’s influence into the Caribbean and East Africa. What would his father have thought, what would he have done in the midst of BLM activism? He would definitely have summoned the energy of the movement to feverishly write music day and night. Ornette was a proud participant in the 1968 March on Washington, organizing impromptu concerts. Firebrand poet Jayne Cortez brought along their 10-year-old son, Denardo, who played the drums.

Ornette and Denardo Coleman. Courtesy KG.
Ornette in his loft, 2013. Photo: Kathelin Gray.

I haven’t experienced energy like what’s now coursing through New York City and beyond, with potential for actual change, since growing up in the ’60s. What blocked the energy of that time, I am often asked. Our leaders were assassinated, that’s what, one after the other: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, JFK, RFK. We didn’t have social media then. Now the landscape of leadership is more far reaching and networked; activism doesn’t die; it adapts and evolves. It’s now burst upon the world.

During the BLM protests, the Criterion Channel offered free access to the film Ornette: Made in America that I made with director Shirley Clarke. It tracks the life and mind of that creative genius who escaped the privation and violence of segregation, and with subtle intelligence, dogged persistence, and a dash of luck, realized his vision of a radical music.

Serendipitously, on Ornette’s birthday this year, a spectacular new biography, Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure by Maria Golia, was released by Reaktion Books. Golia and I first spied each other in passing in 1980 on a Paris street near the Beaubourg. To my surprise, that evening, my friend, artist Brion Gysin, formally introduced us. The striking young sophisticate was from a working-class Polish-Italian family in New Jersey. She had split as a teenager for Europe and settled for a spell in Rome, where she was taken up by jet-setting intelligentsia and appeared in a Fellini film. Soon after we met, she fell in love with a Russian émigré and moved with him to Cairo to create a light show for the Pyramid of Giza. She would pen delightful postcards to Brion, and she and I kept in touch.

Then, in a stunning role reversal in 1985, Golia arrived in Fort Worth, Texas, to join me at Caravan of Dreams Performing Arts Center where she eventually became manager, and where she met Ornette and many other musicians. Golia’s father had been a jazz fan, her brother Frank a composer, and she sure knew her music. After seven years in Texas, she moved back to Cairo (she loves the humanity of the Egyptians) and became a writer and journalist, now a recognized authority on recent Arab politics and culture. Golia built a gorgeous mudbrick house overlooking a graveyard in Luxor, a “tomb with a view.” Her books on Cairo, Egyptian photography, and meteorites don’t lead to a biography of an African American radical genius, but little in the life that Ornette created for himself was predictable either. Golia has penned a labor of love and a thoroughly researched, righteous homage.

Caravan of Dreams, Fort Worth, Texas. Courtesy Theater of All Possibilities.

Best of all, in my view, Golia gets Coleman’s ravenous intellectual curiosity. Her prose is sometimes dense with context, sometimes poetic and exalted, sometimes punchy (“Jim Crow could not dictate what kind of music a person listened to.”). She gets that Ornette was never only a jazz musician. He was a thinker, a futurist, a cultural revolutionary. Ornette took up Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place” mantra literally and aimed to be a resident artist at NASA. Like Sun Ra, Ornette was a godfather of Afrofuturism. His song “Biosphere” came from a visit to the futuristic experiment Biosphere 2 in the Arizona desert; his chamber piece “The Sacred Mind of Johnny Dolphin” was dedicated to John Allen, close friend and inventor of Biosphere 2, whose nom de plume is Johnny Dolphin.

Refreshingly, Golia describes references that informed Ornette’s voracious curiosity, like Derrida, Buckminster Fuller, Maya Angelou, the later Krishnamurti, and Guy Debord. He had a large library of dog-eared, well-annotated publications on philosophy, art history, all branches of science, health, religion, and more. In the ’60s, Ornette affected (prescription-less) glasses to give himself the look of a nerd. Always valuing presentation, he explained that a bespectacled Black man might be taken more seriously as an intellectual than sans glasses. He wanted people to understand that his artistic choices were far from random; he actively pondered, studied, and researched. He could reproduce Charlie Parker solos note for note, tone for tone, but chose to cultivate his own sound. He digested his studies and extracted what he needed to inform fully original thoughts. He was radical, he went for the root of an idea. As Denardo, at his father’s memorial service, said pithily: “My father was deep.”

One quality of a great musician is that they cultivate the art of listening. One can imagine what a different world this would be if people would just listen, really listen. It takes respect and suspension of preconceptions, which as Richard Sennett points out in his book Respect, would transform our world. Ornette was a consummate listener. He taught me to listen to voices, hear beyond the words, even beyond subtext. Golia comments that he had an ear that could “find a whisper in a whirlwind.” It was true. On hearing my voice in the first seconds of a phone call, he would often interrupt and launch into exactly what my real concern was, often a revelation even to me.

Ornette intentionally played his horn a bit sharp, which to his taste helped define his individual sound. Similarly, his choice of words and syntax was idiosyncratic and precise. To some, this made his observations and ideas opaque, to others, crystalline. Original thought is often constrained by language. He had an abiding passion for communicating his individuality and mentored others to do the same with theirs. The essence of art is inner truth.

Golia exhaustively details the origins of Ornette’s multitudinous musical and cultural influences, growing up in Fort Worth. Musicians and serious students of the history of American music or the Black experience will gobble up the first part. For other readers, there’s a rich diet. The narrative then plunges into what happened when Ornette realized he was “fiercely in love with an outlaw music that he could hear but didn’t quite yet know how and with whom to play.”

He began to figure out the solution to his dilemma on arriving from Los Angeles to New York City in 1959. There, visual artists, writers, musicians, and theater people banded together to deconstruct the world and replace formalism with organic inventiveness. Golia writes, “The disciplines of music, painting, dance, theater, photography, film, and literature drew strength from one another, each in its way looking back, whether to integrate or annihilate the past, and forward, towards the possibilities of an interplanetary future, the ultimate avant-garde.” She notes that when Jackson Pollock was criticized for removing nature from his paintings, his retort was “I am nature.”

Living in New York now, in the post-Disneyfication of Times Square, having witnessed the gentrification and outright elimination of countless proud neighborhoods, it’s painful to imagine “when” — when everyone in the creative scene went to the same clubs, drank at the same bars, met up in the same coffee houses in the Village, gathered in the same lofts.

Golia writes:

Leonard Bernstein, the lord almighty of New York’s moneyed music establishment [upon hearing a set of Ornette’s at The Five Spot] […] rose to his feet, shouting, “this is the greatest thing ever to happen to jazz!” The impact of Ornette’s premiere was not unlike that of Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi […] and prompted audience member William Butler Yeats to remark, “What more is possible? After us the Savage God.”

Circa 1964, I was wandering around the UC Berkeley campus looking for a poet. I opened a door to an indoor basketball court, empty except for a bearded man seated in the center, holding a saxophone. He silently turned his head and glanced at me. This is Ornette Coleman flashed through my brain, not yet, and I quietly shut the door. Then, in 1981, I invited Ornette at the suggestion of my old friend, critic John Rockwell, to open our Caravan of Dreams Performing Arts Center in his hometown. At our first meeting, he commented that we had met before, and to my astonishment, mentioned seeing me as a girl in that gymnasium.

When Ornette left his segregated hometown to seek his artistic fortune in Los Angeles, he was a shoeshine-kid-cum-enfant-terrible horn player. In September 1983, opening Caravan of Dreams, he returned as cultural icon. His band Prime Time rocked the nightclub, the Fort Worth Symphony performed his “Skies of America,” and, in the rooftop dome, “Prime Design/Time Design,” his string quintet dedicated to Buckminster Fuller, premiered. For his opening set, he wore a purple silk suit, a purple cowboy hat, and sunglasses.

Ornette at Caravan of Dreams Opening, 1983. Courtesy KG.

Cinematographer Ed Lachman joined Shirley and me to document the opening week. The symphony was a five-camera shoot. We also filmed Ornette’s childhood home smack next to the railroad tracks. Hallucinatory childhood dreams and memories of segregated Fort Worth are recreated in music videos nested in the film. In Roger Hughes’s Barbecue, we interviewed him with pals from childhood. Afterward, when I visited Fort Worth from New York City, I would FedEx Ornette some a dat finger-lickin’ voluptuous barbecue rib and a strawberry soda to wash it down. In his New York building, an abandoned school he wanted to turn into an artists’ center, we interviewed George Russell, Jayne Cortez, critic and musician Bob Palmer, and many others. I moved into the Chelsea Hotel, and Shirley and I edited in her apartment and in a closet on a lower floor. It was Shirley’s last film, a testament to both her and Ornette, great artists both.

Ornette, Shirley Clarke, Kathelin Gray. In his Rivington Street building 1984. Courtesy KG.
Shirley Clarke, Ed Lachman, Kathelin Gray. Photo by Ira Cohen. Courtesy Ira Cohen Archive, LLC

At Caravan’s opening, the sheriff informed us there’d be riot police attending to control the expected race riot. We convinced him to at least have them dress in plain clothes, no riot gear. Of course, the riot never materialized, and not one racist incident did, either, throughout Caravan’s 10-year heyday. The explosion of energy of Ornette’s appearance at the opening propelled Caravan on its legendary way and his career to new heights. With elements of taboo, of glamour, of internecine politics, Caravan of Dreams’s nightclub reminded me of Rick’s Café Américain in the film Casablanca. An inspiration was Brion Gysin’s Thousand and One Nights club he’d run decades before in Tangier’s Casbah. Gysin flew in for Caravan’s opening, as did his pal William Burroughs. They opened the literature series in the theater with readings.

Ornette and Prime Time with Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, John Giordano, conductor, 1983. Courtesy KG.

The thousands who flocked to our nocturnal oasis passed through its entrance on Houston Street, Cowtown, into a glittering Dionysian vortex spinning to wailing horns and throbbing rhythms. Dizzy Gillespie told me it was the best nightclub he’d ever played in. Up the staircase, there was the theater and the bejeweled rooftop garden dome and bar. Golia describes the scenius of Caravan of Dreams. Indeed, she was part of it. Read all about it.

Ornette’s character quirks are sprinkled like spice throughout the narrative. Golia dubs him a tinkerer. He loved gadgets, it’s true. The thing was, he obsessively took things apart, poking and prodding their constituent elements, a process from which they never recovered. Few electronic items survived his attention. One would exert desperate efforts to hide new equipment from him. But he had acute psychic antennae, which, combined with his innate suspicion, made hiding anything a futile endeavor. Shelves and closets in his studio were littered with autopsied equipment.

His nature combined the most organized faculties with the utterly nonrational. Ornette had a keen analytical mind that processed every bit of music — indeed, sound — that he heard. But then, he might have ascribed a non-functioning studio toilet to a voodoo charm that an enemy of his contrived. These rational and irrational faculties came together on his ’70s trip to Jajouka, Morocco, where he joined critic Bob Palmer, William Burroughs, and Brion Gysin. Like other musical traditions in Morocco, Jajouka combined elements of pre-Arabic tribal sound with Sufi devotional music — “sanctified,” like the church music Ornette grew up with. He loved Jajouka’s complex sound density, which resonated with his own approach. Burroughs called it “a 4,000-year-old rock band.” Palmer would fall into a trance upon hearing Jajouka play and later described miracles, presided over by the master musician. Others had “weird shit” happen. By a stroke of kismet, this encounter appears briefly in our film. On the floor of Shirley’s studio in the Chelsea Hotel, I excavated mounds of globbed-up prehistoric video tapes Ornette had squirrelled away under his bed. I separated the emulsion of tapes with alcohol-dipped Q-tips and resurrected seconds of Ornette, Palmer, Gysin, and Burroughs together in Morocco.

Ornette, William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin. Rooftop garden, Caravan of Dreams, 1983. Photo Ira Cohen. Courtesy Ira Cohen Archive, LLC.

Ornette and his various bands performed all over the world. He’s written many standards. One year, out of curiosity, I scanned the Sunday New York Times every week to check for his name. A week did not go by when it didn’t appear. He was and is an inspiration and a proper role model for the young. His persistence, work ethic, authenticity, and intelligence demonstrated that where there is a will, there’s a way. He created an example of expanded potential and what it means to be an artist. No wonder Ornette’s influence grows, even as healing our damaged world can seem more and more a remote fantasy.

Ornette showed there’s so much to learn, to do, and we have one lifetime to do it. Get on with it.

Kathelin Gray, Ornette Coleman, John Giordano. Reviewing Skies of America score. Fort Worth, Texas, 1983. Courtesy KG.

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Kathelin Gray is a director, producer, curator, and writer. She has co-founded projects which integrate art, ecology, science, and culture.