OTR, Take 7: Ornette Coleman - The Shape of Jazz to Come

As I sat down to write this week’s newsletter, after I had finished listening to Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, my older dog, Winnie, walked over and nudged my laptop away from me.

At first, I was annoyed. Doesn’t she know I have important things to do?! And then two things happened:

  1. I saw in her eyes how much she just wanted to spend some time with me, saw the little boots (which look like ballet slippers) on her back paws to help her keep stable with her increasing neuropathy, and realized that there was no more important thing to do than spend some time with my favorite dog ever; and
  2. I had that moment of clear reflection and had to laugh at myself: “important things to do”? Hubris, thy name is Owen.

So I stopped and played with Winnie for 45 minutes. It was the best time I’ve had in days: simple, pure, unblemished by secondary meaning. (The only better moment this week was picking my wife up from the airport after several days apart.)

I spent most of this morning so far attempting to ground myself after a rough week. I didn’t sleep much (travel, flight delays, and a sick puppy who would sleep through the day and require me to take her out every 90 minutes overnight will do that) and I set for myself a purpose this morning: to shrug off the week and reset and reorient myself toward my path.

I chose The Shape of Jazz to Come because jazz helps soothe me – even challenging jazz, and Coleman is definitely challenging. I set the needle down on “Lonely Woman,” and sat down on the ottoman where I always listen to my Saturday record.

Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come

I placed my feet flat on the rug beneath me, sat with a straight back and closed eyes, and let the music flow through and past me. (This is how I always look when listening on Saturdays: I probably appear like some lost monk deep in contemplation.)

You might not know this about Pittsburgh, but it was one of the major jazz hotspots in the United States as the genre developed from its inception through swing and bebop. Pittsburgh's Hill District was home to some of the great jazz clubs in the world.

I was raised on jazz. Or, rather, my father’s record collection played a significant role in my younger years, and he had a lot of jazz. Much of it, I now know, was my grandfather’s.

My grandfather died nearly ten years before I was born and he has always been a bit of a very-present ghost for me. From the time I can remember, my grandmother (who lived with us when I was very young) would tell me how much I reminded her of him. I knew so little about him and this was an odd feeling: as though I rhymed with someone else whom I never knew.

After a while, I got a bit obsessed with this – this double that would forever be a mystery to me. I started making up little stories: not about my grandfather, but about someone who could have been my grandfather. Mind you, this character is fictional. Whole cloth new. (Well, maybe 90% original.)

Eventually, these stories started to coalesce into a life. A longer, more coherent tale that bore less and less similarity to the man I had been dreaming about since I was old enough to count my age on one hand. The stories grew further and further away from any resemblance to my own family. So I decided I was going to turn these stories, these characters, into novels.

The first of these novels, Pennhollow, is set in Pittsburgh in the 1940s – and a fair amount of the action occurs in jazz clubs as bebop is beginning to elbow out swing. Ornette Coleman’s The Sound of Jazz to Come is one of the first albums to portend the advent of free jazz, which was the counterpoint to bebop’s response to swing. It’s a fascinating album, where you can feel the tautness of bebop begin to come unraveled.

Listening to Coleman this morning made me think about beginning to put up some of the novel I’m writing and publicly work through the writing. This may be a great idea (it would provide me some accountability) or it might be crippling (causing me to react to any comments and edit during the writing process).

I’m curious: would anybody be interested in that project if I did put it up (definitely outside the gates of LinkedIn)? Please let me know.

Winnie is again looking at me winsomely. Come play.

For all of the intention I try to bring to my Saturday mornings, that directed focus on resetting and getting my mind right…it was 45 minutes sitting on the floor with my dog that pulled me out of it.

Dogs do not suffer from the burden of being human: the striving to become. Dogs don’t ruminate over what the neighbor dog sleeps on, what dog food it eats.

Dogs are pure being to our incessant becoming. More often than I can articulate, Winnie – pure terrier: feisty, intelligent, stubborn as fuck, loyal, protective, demanding – has pulled my monkey mind back into a state of simply being.

Just be here, with me. Right now. Forever?

Man, we don’t deserve dogs.

Winnie & me hangin' out on the dock at Lake George.

You can listen to Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come on Tidal.

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