Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Ornette Coleman, Diamond Club, Toronto, July 1988

ORNETTE COLEMAN HAD THE STATUS OF A LIVING LEGEND around the time I was getting into jazz. There were plenty of legendary jazz musicians still performing and recording by the late '80s - I had photographed Dizzy Gillespie just a few months before Coleman came to Toronto, and would have a frustratingly brief chance to shoot Miles Davis at Massey Hall a couple of years later.

But Ornette was considered more elusive; a more difficult, experimental artist, rarely seen outside European festivals and more generally recorded by this point on obscure labels. In 1988, though, he'd suddenly been signed to Portrait, a subsidiary of CBS, and was on tour with a new record, Virgin Beauty - his first on a major label in twelve years.

Which was probably why, when a date was finally announced, access was so carefully controlled. Even getting an advance copy of the record seemed a matter of strictest security and publicist scrutiny. (Which is strange - considering how small sales of any Ornette record, or jazz records in general were, you'd think the PR people would be doing their best to create some sort of buzz.)

When Ornette finally arrived I managed to get a photo pass but was told in no uncertain terms that any sort of portrait shoot, no matter how brief or ad hoc, would be impossible. It was terribly unlike the way I was able to approach almost any jazz musician passing through town and get at least a couple of minutes of their time in a corner of a club or in a (relatively) bright corner of a dressing room.

Ornette Coleman, Diamond Club, Toronto, July 1988

Ornette put a fairly large band on the dim stage of the Diamond Club, including a tabla player and his son, Denardo, on drums. I brought both colour and black and white film and scurried about at the apron of the stage trying to get a decent shot. I was far less successful with the colour film, which I thought was a shame since Ornette was wearing one of his trademark "suits of many colours," and I was simply unable to capture it.

Virgin Beauty was an odd record, but you could have said that about many of Ornette's albums. The electronic drums pin it firmly to the '80s, and Jerry Garcia's guitar contributions had a feel of "Hey, look who showed up - pull up a chair!" I was curious to see how his whole concept of Harmolodics - explained countless ways, though never to any particular satisfacion - would play out live.

Joe Zawinul's description of it as "nobody solos, everybody solos" ended up being as good a description as any that night. My good friend and "jazz mentor" Tim Powis had made me a mixed tape of Ornette "essentials" in preparation for the show, but in the end I remained as baffled as before.

Ornette Coleman, Diamond Club, Toronto, July 1988

Technically, the best shot I'd end up of Ornette playing had him with his trumpet instead of his signature alto sax. At the time - and I'm not sure this opinion has shifted much since then - his trumpet playing was esteemed only in comparison to his violin playing.

Of all the jazz "greats" - Armstrong, Miles, Coltrane, Dizzy, Basie, Ellington, Charlie Parker, Monk, Bud Powell, Bill Evans - Ornette was always the most stubborn nut to crack, and that night at the Diamond club did little to help me figure him out. I am still trying, to this day.

Ornette Coleman died of a heart attack on June 11.


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