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Posted on Fri, Apr 30, 2010 : 11 a.m.

Honorary degree recipient Ornette Coleman in Ann Arbor: 1973, 1986 and 2004

By Edward Vielmetti

Ornette Coleman is receiving an honorary degree from the University of Michigan on Saturday. This isn't his first trip to Ann Arbor, though, and a look at his distinguished career through the eyes of his appearances in the area shows three separate parts of his career.

In 1973, he was part of an all-star lineup at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival. In 1986, he played Hill Auditorium with Pat Metheny in front of a dwindling audience that expected to hear something else. In 2004, he played Hill Auditorium again, and the audience was ready for him and quite appreciative.

Ornette Coleman at the 1973 Blues and Jazz Festival

Coleman played at the 1973 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival. John Sinclair wrote up the event with this description of the people who were at the show:

"The festival returned in 1973 with an even more ambitious agenda, offering five insane combinations which presented on-the-same-stage performances by Roosevelt Sykes, Leon Thomas, the Count Basie Orchestra and Freddie King; Yusef Lateef, John Lee Hooker, CJQ and a Motor City Blues Revue that included Baby Boy Warren, Washboard Willie, Dr. Ross, Eddie Kirkland, Boogie Woogie Red, Eddie Burns, Bobo Jenkins and One-String Sam; Ray Charles, Charles Mingus, Big Walter Horton and Jimmy Reed; the Johnny Otis Show, Ornette Coleman, King Biscuit Boys and Victoria Spivey; and Luther Allison, Hound Dog Taylor and Sun Ra - three perennial favorites with the Ann Arbor audience."

One of my favorite accounts of the show is from Brom Wikstrom, who hopped a freight train from the West Coast to get to Chicago and then hitch-hiked to Ann Arbor for the event. A piece of his narrative sets the scene:

"Ray Charles is the main headliner and our long wait for his closing set is well worth it. Preceding his set a roadie is exhorting the crowd by raising his arms in welcome. The crowd response enthusiastically. Then, when he is at rest, I raise my hands in salute to him and he responds in kind. A gallon jug of wine is being passed around and we partake generously till we get pretty loaded. We’re still obliged to pick up trash after the show but do so only in a token way, even escaping to a sani-can to pass out briefly. I assure the boss man that I’ll pick up trash during the next festival day while the bands play.

This I do but take many long breaks to jam to the Johnny Otis Show and a searing set by Ornette Coleman. The evening is dominated by Luther Allison’s wild set, Sun Ra and Otis Rush and Hound Dog Taylor. An absolutely incredible scene."

A photo of Coleman performing at the 1973 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival from photographer Charlie Auringer can be seen at Backstage Gallery.

Ornette Coleman & Pat Metheny at Hill Auditorium, 1986

On May 17, 1986, Pat Metheny and Coleman played Hill Auditorium. The two had combined to record their album Song X in December 1985, and they were on tour across the country.

Jeff Lopez-Stuit, who was at the show, noted many "surprised and overwhelmed people who had shown up thinking they were going to hear Pat Metheny Group tunes."

Metheny played Hill again in October, 2005; this review of that show from All About Jazz notes:

"Later commenting on the pieces, Pat recalled performing with Coleman at Hill during a tour in support of Song X and the fact that at the end of the evening there were only "about 16 people left in the house."

Ornette Coleman at Hill Auditorium, 2004

The All About Jazz forums have contemporary accounts of people who were at Ornette Coleman's April 2004 show at Hill Auditorium.

Contributor "Cocoman" writes:

"I was at this show last night and let me tell you, it was AMAZING. First off the two bass idea (one using a bow and the other plucking) is brilliant. When Ornette first started playing, my first thought was "man he is old and can barely play". But in the the middle of his first solo, after he was warmed up, it was ON. He sounded just like he did on those early records. Denardo came out of nowhere and BLEW the place up. This guy is AMAZING. I totally didnt expect him to be that great of a drummer. The show lasted about 1h45 min (which included Lonely Women after a person screamed it out) and then he went off stage. After about 3 minutes of constant clapping he came out and played Broadway Blues. It surely was a treat. Hope he sticks around for some years and maybe do some more recording because he hasnt lost a step. Oh I forgot to mention that he played trumpet (which wasn't that bad, but still made Miles turn in his grave) and violin. In summary, it was one of the best shows I have ever seen."

A clipping from Lazaro Vega, Blue Lake Public Radio, gives another ear to the event:

"Ornette Coleman’s acoustic jazz presentation was functional simplicity -- two basses and drum set creating a tapestry of sound that he’d play endless melodies upon. The ensemble which performed an uninterrupted (no intermission) 10 piece and single encore set Friday evening had the poise and sonic balance of a string quartet imbued with the deeply creative, highly sophisticated shape shifting instrumental relationships to harmony, melody and rhythm Coleman’s music is known for."

Background and discography

Some reference materials round things out:

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Fri, Apr 30, 2010 : 10:50 a.m.

Ed, You missed one Coleman Ann Arbor appearance. He brought his band, Prime Time, to the Power Center on Thursday, Feb 18, 1982. How do I know? I save my ticket stubs as momentoes of these events. So I still have the stub from this appearance and the 1986 appearance at Hill. I'll show them to you some time.