Frequently, it is said jazz is dead. The music no longer caters to an audience willing to endure its complexity when pop offers so much more in passive, easy, listenable entertainment. Jazz, say these critics, is only for a rarefied audience. But jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s death puts some pressure against that standard argument. Of course, Coleman, was likely too avant-garde to have a really large audience or broad popular appeal. Nevertheless, it is interesting that he was such a respected artist that his obituary has not only appeared in The New York Times, but The Guardian, on NPR, in The New Yorker, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal — all top of the line cultural news properties. Moreover, it appears to be more than obligatory.
Can an art be expiring — or be said to be expiring — when highbrow organs give its best musicians extended and glowing tribute? It may be time to redefine expiration. Is it a bottom up thing, or a top down thing? The blessing of Coleman’s final gesture — all respect to the great man — is that his death brings to life a new question and gives us a fresh perspective on the viability of the art he pursued for a half-century. Noticeably, the culture cares about jazz, and it cared about Ornette Coleman. R.I.P.