Article du jour: Marc Myers on Ornette Coleman

From critic Marc Myers‘s June 15 appreciation of the late avant-garde jazz musician Ornette Coleman in the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Coleman’s enduring relevance and legacy are all the more remarkable in a culture that tends to recognize and reward musicians who appeal to the mass market.

Mr. Myers is spot on in his description of our culture — our human culture. That we humans recognize and reward the musicians who appeal to the most people should be obvious to the point of tautology. Myers may refer in Adorno-esque fashion to those who like such popular music as the “mass market,” but really, they’re just folks like you ‘n’ me, listening to what they like and not to what they don’t like.

And what’s not to like about Ornette Coleman? Nothing, says Marc Myers, according to whom Coleman…

…reach(ed) a position of eminence on par with jazz innovators like (Charlie) Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

Which would be like saying that John Cage reached a position of eminence on par with classical innovators like Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Bartók. In other words: He. Did. Not.

True, Coleman’s “free” style created quite a ruckus in the jazz scene of the late ‘fifties and early ‘sixties, and left an impression on a significant number of subsequent musicians. But looking back, Coleman’s period of greatest notoriety (and by far best music) seems just a moment in time, followed by decades of intermittently interesting but more often negligible music, much of which, I have to admit, provides me with little or no pleasure. Like Myers, I went back to Coleman’s discography to update my opinion. It remains decidedly mixed.

I could go on citing the myriad straw men and exaggerations of Myers’s article, from the “mainstream jazz fans, who tend to be most comfortable with swing and bebop interpretations of songs they already know” to the “jazz fans (who) may be surprised to find themselves actually enjoying Mr. Coleman’s music, which does still require us to think while we listen.” You see, in Marc Myers’s view, not to like Ornette Coleman is testament to one’s lack of sophistication, adventurousness and even intelligence. Couldn’t it be as simple as lots of people thinking that Coleman’s music sounds bad? Isn’t that a perfectly reasonable reaction to, say, the vaunted “Skies of America?” It’s certainly my reaction, and I’d like to think I’m a fairly smart and open-minded listener.

If Marc Myers wants to praise Ornette Coleman, fine. Coleman was a dedicated artist and American original. It undermines Myers’s cause, however, when he places Coleman on par with artists who tower over him, and when he insults those who have a lower estimation of Coleman. You have a right to like and not like whatever music you choose, and no one has a right to tell you your choices are wrong.

Listen for yourself:

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