First a Pulitzer, then a Grammy and a presentation on the Grammy TV show (somewhat akin to seeing a holy man appear in the temple of Babylon), now a feature in Rolling Stone…at the age of 77, Ornette Coleman has finally received the blessing of the American cultural establishment. (To be fair, he’s actually been profiled in Rolling Stone before, a 1989 piece by David Fricke.) It’s not available online, but if you’re in a bookstore or a library that subscribes to RS, pick up the copy with Led Zeppelin on the cover (let’s do the time-warp again!) and check out Scott Spencer’s article about Ornette. Not as bad as you might think–Sonny Rollins and jazz writers Francis Davis and Coleman biographer John Litweiler are among those quoted, and Spencer did decent homework on his subject. The piece ends with an account of Coleman’s triumph/heat-collapse at Bonnaroo this past summer.
Accolades like this often inspire a sneering kind of cynicism towards the media outlets bestowing them (often deserved), not to mention concern about the effect upon the annointed. In Ornette’s case, he’s too cool and too advanced–not just in years–to be negatively affected, or to be affected much in any kind of way, something which comes through in Spencer’s article. But then that’s been the point all along, hasn’t it? In the piece he and Spencer both recount some of the miserable experiences he had in his younger years, both on the chitlin-and-quasi-minstrel circuit and the jazz scene as well–an early life that might have warped or broken many musicians with similar artistic ambitions. And as beautiful and deep a person as Coleman appears to be, I think he’s got a certain savvy for playing this culture’s game in his own way, without getting played himself. Beauty is a rare thing, and Ornette knows it–knows that the only meaningful and ultimate success comes from being true to one’s self and soul, one’s own sound. All too often too tall an order in the white noise rising today.