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Remembering Jazz Great Ornette Coleman, and Recalling His Stint on Rivington Street

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Photo by Geert Vandepoele, via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo by Geert Vandepoele, via Wikimedia Commons.

The jazz world today is remembering the visionary saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman, who died at the age of 85. He passed away at his home in Manhattan of cardiac arrest. In an obituary in the New York Times, Ben Ratliff writes:

Mr. Coleman widened the options in jazz and helped change its course. Partly through his example in the late 1950s and early ’60s, jazz became less beholden to the rules of harmony and rhythm, and gained more distance from the American songbook repertoire.  His own music, then and later, became a new form of highly informed folk song: deceptively simple melodies for small groups with an intuitive, collective language, and a strategy for playing without preconceived chord sequences.

As the 1970s drew to a close, the article notes, Coleman “moved his base of operations to a building on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side.”

Did you know about that? Neither did we. As People Magazine reported in a 1986 profile, Coleman was forced out of a SoHo loft and then “lived in various cold-water flats and fleabag hotel rooms” until 1981. That’s when he took over a former school building, P.S. 4, at 203 Rivington St. (at Pitt Street). Coleman didn’t have an easy time there, either:

Just as he was beginning to settle in, Coleman was the victim of two brutal robbery attempts in the building. In September 1982, two teenagers tied him up and left him for dead after hitting him on the head with a hammer; then, six months later, he was surprised by two more young muggers, who stabbed him in the back with a crowbar. Recovered now from his injuries, Coleman nurses a fantasy of turning the school into an “arts embassy” for musicians from around the world. In the meantime, he has fixed up one classroom as a spartan bedroom and another as a rehearsal hall for his band, Prime Time.

That dream, of course, did not become reality. 203 Rivington is now an apartment building.

Coleman once said, “To me sound is eternal … and there are still some notes that haven’t been heard. I don’t know where to find them, but I know they are there.”

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