A Toronto comic-book artist has published a new graphic novel based on the words of jazz legend Ornette Coleman.

Matthew Brown says he came across Coleman while reading Ted Gioia’s book How to Listen to Jazz and fell in love with his “crazy, indescribable” music. When Brown went online to watch video interviews with Coleman, he became just as transfixed with the saxophonist and composer’s unique way of speaking. So, he started transcribing those interviews.

The result is creatively illustrated in Brown’s new book Ornette Speaks: A Cartoon Grammar, published on Amazon Kindle and available as either a hard copy or an e-book. The project was supported by a grant from the Toronto Arts Council.

“Ornette’s idiosyncratic language inspired me to do the graphic novel like a free-jazz performance,” Brown says.

Coleman was one of the founders of free jazz, a term he coined with his album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation. Among his best-known works are the 1959 recording The Shape of Jazz to Come, a watershed moment in avant-garde jazz, and the 2006 live album Sound Grammar, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Brown explains that each page of Ornette Speaks is designed like a 12-bar blues, with a square layout subdivided into four smaller panels like an old album cover. Brown drew quickly and spontaneously, spreading scenes across more than one panel or repeating the same images in different interpretations, moving between “realistic and hallucinatory,” he says.

“I just let my subconscious throw in scenes to match Ornette’s textures in my earphones, mixing abstract expressionism with Peanuts. Just like Ornette’s music, I hope the meaning keeps shifting and people can find something new every time they dip into it. Plus, I wanted to [capture] Ornette’s mix of humour and shamanic intensity,” Brown says.

“But more importantly, I found that Ornette’s soft-spoken and thoughtful voice championed creativity and equality throughout his life. His music was a joyful victory over conformity and racism.”

Brown was involved in the underground Montreal comics scene of the early 1990s and the Toronto self-publishing zine movement of the early ’00s. His other recent graphic novels include Rothko: A Cartoon Memoir (2019), What is Meditation? (2018), The Cliff: A Science Fiction Fairytale (2017) and Architecture Department (2016).

You can order Ornette Speaks: A Cartoon Grammar on Amazon.