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My Friend, Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman at his 85th birthday party in March 2015. John Rogers for NPR hide caption

toggle caption John Rogers for NPR

Ornette Coleman at his 85th birthday party in March 2015.

John Rogers for NPR

John Rogers is a photographer living in New York City who specializes in jazz. A few weeks ago, he approached NPR with the idea to document the unique connection he shared with his friend Ornette Coleman. He was working on it when Coleman died last week at 85. Rogers finished the story for us here. —Ed.


When I was a teenager, I moved to Lancaster, Penn., for a summer. One of the only places I enjoyed was the record store. At this particular store — I think it was called Imaginary Records — there was a beautiful color poster on the wall of Ornette Coleman. I had fallen in love with Ornette's music growing up in Nashville, and I would always ask the guy in the store to sell me the poster. He always declined. It became a running joke between us.

The day I left for good, I went to the store to tell the clerk goodbye. To my shock, he had packaged up that poster of Ornette, and he gave it to me as a gift. If only I remembered his name, I would love to tell him all the stories of how I later became friends with Ornette Coleman — and shared that friendship with many others.

I first met Ornette after winning tickets to see him play Carnegie Hall on the radio station WKCR. (Well, I had met him in passing a few weeks earlier, but this was the first "official" meeting.) I went to the show and ran into Greg Cohen, Ornette's bassist at the time. Greg said he would try to get me backstage, but couldn't promise anything. After the show, I saw Greg's kids, and they took me backstage and said I was their cousin John. I had my camera and was taking a few photos when Ornette came up to me and started talking. He said he was enjoying what I had to say and invited me over to his apartment to continue our conversation. So the next day, when I finished work, I biked up to Ornette's pad.

I started going over there quite a lot and, at first, always by myself. Sometimes we listened to music together, or he destroyed me on the pool table. Mostly we would discuss philosophy. Ornette seemed to really enjoy my perspective, and vice versa. He gave me countless new ways to think about the universe and life. He had this unique way of thinking, and I found myself writing down everything he said. For example: "Sound can change things you would never imagine," or "Sound is eternal but means something different to everyone." Sometimes, we went to eat or wandered around Midtown. Once, we went to the Halloween parade on a whim after watching it start on TV.

We were both from the South originally, so I think we related to each other in that way. Ornette told me: "I grew up with musicians playing from sounds, not from notes. That's how the South was powerful. You may not understand it, but the emotion gets you. That's why existing is so eternal."

My tattoo of Ornette Coleman. John Rogers for NPR hide caption

toggle caption John Rogers for NPR

My tattoo of Ornette Coleman.

John Rogers for NPR

It was around this time that I reconnected with a friend of mine, a tattoo artist named David Digby. Based solely off the conversations I'd had with Ornette, I decided to get a portrait of Ornette tattooed on my leg. Digby was thrilled to do it, and I basically had to force him to take any money at all. A few days later, I was back at Ornette's apartment and showed him the tattoo. Together, we called Digby on the phone and Ornette regaled him with compliments. Digby told me it was one of the happiest moments of his life, and it left him in tears on the floor. Digby wrote down what Ornette told him that day on the phone: "May the stars always shine their beautiful brilliance down on your creative soul." Imagine getting a phone call like that out of the blue!

Ornette always told me that if he could do anything to help me, then I should let him know. I thought about this for a long time. At first, just being my friend was enough. However, I got to thinking that what would really make me happy would be if I could share the experience of hanging out with Ornette with other people whose music and friendship had also made me happy.

With this in mind, I started taking people I admired to Ornette's house to meet and perhaps play music with him. I didn't do this for any reason other than to make Ornette happy, and to make the people involved happy. But during those encounters, it was like time stopped. Sometimes the playing and conversation would last for more than 10 hours straight.

Ornette Coleman with Bill Frisell. John Rogers for NPR hide caption

toggle caption John Rogers for NPR

In no particular order, here is a brief list:

  • Bill Frisell a few times alone, but also with Rudy Royston and Tivon Pennicott
  • Joey Baron with Greg Cohen and Joe Lovano
  • Russell Malone with Ugonna Okegwo
  • Fred Hersch
  • Bill McHenry
  • Mark Turner with Ben Street and Loren Stillman
  • Sam Yahel with Mary Halvorson and Shayna Dulberger
  • Jason Moran
  • Tom Harrell
  • Anthony Pinciotti with Spike Wilner, Stacy Dillard and Gregg August
  • JD Allen
  • Evan Christopher
  • Harry Allen and Grant Stewart
  • GEN2 (street artist)
  • Robert Hernandez (tattoo artist)
  • Shahzad Ismaily
  • Red Sullivan and Hilliard Greene
  • Jeff Coffin and Scott Robinson
  • Steve Dalachinsky (poet)
  • Jed Eisenman (general manager of the Village Vanguard)
  • Dr. Lewis Porter and Billy Kaye

With only a handful of exceptions, this was the only time these folks ever met or played with Ornette. I'm sure I'm forgetting many more, but these stand out to me.

I asked some of them to reflect on their meetings. Here are some of the responses I got back.

Jason Moran and Ornette Coleman play pool. John Rogers for NPR hide caption

toggle caption John Rogers for NPR

Jason Moran, pianist:

My friend John Rogers took me by Ornette's to play pool. I broke the rack of balls and the balls scattered about the table. Ornette approached the table with his cue stick. He gracefully swiped all of the balls to one side. He picked up the cue ball and placed it in front of him. He picked up the 6 ball and placed it in front of the side pocket. He then shot the 6 ball in. He then replaced the cue ball in the same position and picked up the 3 ball, and shot the same shot. We did this for 90 minutes — all kinds of different shots. It was the best lesson in life: You make your own rules. Set up your game for you, and practice it.

Joey Baron with Ornette Coleman. John Rogers for NPR hide caption

toggle caption John Rogers for NPR

Joey Baron with Ornette Coleman.

John Rogers for NPR

Joey Baron, drummer:

I recall fondly the time when my friend John Rogers facilitated an afternoon duo session with Ornette Coleman. Having a chance to musically dialogue with such a great musician — such a great human being — was incredibly exciting. A personal dream come true.

We arrived at Ornette's Midtown loft in the afternoon and went straight into the music room. Ornette was unable to find his ligature. John immediately came to Ornette's aid, looking in every conceivable place for the missing ligature. After a considerable amount of time spent intensely searching, John — in his positive, creative fashion — concocted a possible solution by using rubber bands to attach the reed to the mouth piece. Excited by the prospect of this creation solving the problem, thus enabling us to get on with playing, John attached the mouthpiece to the horn, blew, and produced a few notes. Meanwhile, Ornette was still rummaging through drawers and shelves looking for the missing ligature. John excitedly said, "Hey Ornette, this may work ... it makes a sound!" Immediately, Ornette mumbled, "You call that a sound?"

The missing ligature eventually made its presence known and we began playing. It was an experience I will never forget. Ornette creates an atmosphere of acceptance and openness. No expectation. Nothing to prove. We proceeded to play for the good part of the afternoon, talking briefly between each improvisation. We spoke about how good it is (in the context of the world today and all the things that people do) that we are playing music right now! We talked about melodies, sound, pitches ... I mentioned that while not able to play fixed pitches, I could create an illusion of pitch, especially in an uncluttered context such as the present duo. I spoke of cymbals and the worlds of sound that are contained in each one. I held up a cymbal next to Ornette's ear after lightly tapping it with my palm to demonstrate the orchestra resonating from the edge of the cymbal. The wondrous look of interest on Ornette's face as he listened was indeed a joy.

After we finished playing for the afternoon, Ornette looked at me, smiled, and told me that I played prayers. I am forever grateful to Ornette for those words, as well as for sharing that intimate afternoon. It was a complete affirmation of how great it is to make music in this world.

Joe Lovano, saxophonist:

John Rogers was organizing some informal jam sessions at Ornette's loft in Manhattan. On Sept. 21, 2010, along with Greg Cohen on bass and Joey Baron on drums, we went to Ornette's to visit and play some music. What a beautiful afternoon that was — one for the history books, as they say. We arrived and Ornette was taking a nap, so his assistant let us in and told us he was expecting us. We went into his studio, set up and played trio for about 40 minutes of improvised music. All of a sudden, Mr. Coleman appeared all dressed in his unique fashion as if he was going to a gig, with alto sax in hand. We then played and hung out for the next hour and a half or so. It was a beautiful day of music and love. I feed off of this inspired moment every day!

Jeff Coffin, saxophonist:

The last time I visited Ornette was with John Rogers and multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson. It was John who initially gave me Ornette's phone number and suggested I call him.

I was excited to hear that Scott was bringing over his slide saxophone! (Yes, there really is such a thing.) We all hung out for a bit and talked, and then Scott and Ornette played together. I just went for the hang this time and didn't bring my horn. I remember, in particular, Ornette being so excited to hear the slide saxophone. He would rub/clap his hands together and make a "Woooooooo" sound. He would laugh when he heard it, and in that laugh his eyes radiated joy and curiosity and wonder. At the end of the session, Scott asked if Ornette wanted to try the slide sax. "Wooooooooooooo."

What happened next is forever etched in my mind — even now I have goosebumps thinking about it. This instrument is basically the size of a soprano sax, but instead of keys, it has a slide that goes up and down inside an outer tube, with holes that basically change the length of the tube to produce certain pitches. It's not a walk in the park to play something like this. Ornette started to play it, laughed and then continued. Within about a minute or two, at the most, the most astonishing change occurred, and suddenly Ornette sounded just like Ornette! The lines, the sound, the shape, the spirit, everything locked into place — my jaw hit the floor. He was a master with such a profound understanding of music and tone that I don't think it mattered what he played. He would always sound like himself because of the intention of his heart and spirit.

Ornette found his path a long time ago and followed it. To hear him like that will forever inspire me. I will continue to celebrate Ornette, and to share his music and stories with students and others. I am thankful beyond words to have met this great man and to have shared music with him. Ornette said once, "All listeners are equal in their opinions." My opinion is that there are none equal to Ornette Coleman.

Ornette Coleman at Carnegie Hall in 2006. John Rogers for NPR hide caption

toggle caption John Rogers for NPR

Personally, Ornette was one of the most wonderful people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I have no idea what I ever did to deserve this man as a friend. The night Paul Motian died, Ornette came to see me at the Village Vanguard and sat next to me during a performance of the Bill McHenry quartet. He was the only person in the world who could have made me happy that night. Another time, when I was sick, he brought me sorbet and soup and magazines right to my apartment. He told my mother on the phone that I was an amazing human. His was the place I went when I needed a friend most in life.

"The less you think, the more your emotions will be fulfilled," Ornette once told me. Thank you, Ornette, for making such a positive impact on not only my life, but also on those of many close to me.

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