David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He is the author of Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing and Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown. He is at work on a biography of Joni Mitchell.

If you were to run an algorithm covering the political discourse for the past 15 years or so, you would probably find that the word “freedom” had been co-opted — hijacked. even — by the political right. “Freedom and justice for all” is a founding principle of America, and I was one of the elementary-school students who droned through the Pledge of Allegiance. For the right, freedom means freedom from taxing the rich, freedom of speech for corporations, “Freedom Fries,” and freedom to bring a gun anywhere you want, even a church. But freedom was the goal of the civil-rights movement, and freedom was the principle of free jazz. A towering figure of American music, Ornette Coleman, who made jazz more free, passed away on June 11, at the age of 85. Adam Shatz’s ruminative, eloquent, and evocative diary from The London Review of Books reminds us of when freedom meant something else — when Coleman, with swing, the blues, and a stunning alto-saxophone voice liberated jazz from meter and harmony. His playing never stopped being melodic, even if those melodies were tested against dissonance and clangor.  

“Ornette’s riddles gave jazz musicians permission – even incited them – to question received truths about music,” writes Shatz. “His titles were arresting collages of image and idea: ‘New York Is Now,’ ‘The Jungle Is a Skyscraper,’ ‘The Skies of America,’ ‘Africa Is the Mirror of All Colours,’ 'Mothers of the Veil,' and, not least, 'Lonely Woman.’ But the title I’ve thought of most often since his death is ‘Beauty Is a Rare Thing.’ Coleman made it less rare.” Amen.

In the week of the Supreme Court’s historic ruling for marriage equality, and the week when President Obama brought the cadences of the civil-rights movement back to a terrible occasion, freedom may get taken back. A paragon of musical and artistic freedom has passed away, but we’re still here, and we want freedom to have its rightful meaning again. Shatz’s wonderful essay reminds us that if we want true freedom, we have to listen.