Ornette Coleman: Saxophonist, composer and pioneer of free jazz who shattered the rules and revolutionised the genre


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Though largely self-taught, Coleman would create his own “harmolodic” concept of music, which also became a life philosophy. The music derived from a uniquely free interaction between the musicians, without their being tethered to rigid metric or harmonic structure. “I want everyone to have an equal relationship to the results,” Coleman said in 2007. “I don’t tell them what or how to play... Sometimes the drum is leading, sometimes the bass is leading... I don’t think I’m the leader, I’m just paying the bills.”

Once so revolutionary he drove some listeners to physical abuse, he became a statesman who received honours previously unthinkable for jazz artists. He was only the second jazz performer to win a Pulitzer Prize, for his 2006 album Sound Grammar, and he was the rare jazzman voted into the elite American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also received a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master award, and a Grammy lifetime achievement award, even though none of his recordings won a competitive Grammy.

Wynton Marsalis described Coleman as “a transformative legend in jazz, an educator and leader for future jazz musicians.” He recalled how as a young trumpeter he once played privately for several hours with Coleman one night in New Orleans: “Ornette was something - with a rare kind of home-spun seriousness and pure insightfulness that immediately made you feel at home. He said don’t worry too much about criticism and to focus on the subtle command of the emotion in my sound and to communicate in the same way a person speaking might raise an eyebrow or scrunch their face.”

Tenor saxophone legend Sonny Rollins said, meanwhile, “We’re all happy that we had an opportunity to witness the work and life of Ornette Coleman, and the human race is better for it.”

Coleman’s influence extended beyond the jazz world, inspiring such rock figures as Lou Reed and the Grateful Dead. “Most of the impact of his music has not yet been felt,” Grateful Dead singer and guitarist Bob Weir said. “In 30 years, popular music will be getting around to incorporating the principles of the music he was making 30 years ago.”

Like so many visionaries, Coleman suffered waiting for the world to catch up. Early in his career, his unconventional playing led to rejection by the public and his fellow musicians, who would walk off the stage when he showed up at jam sessions. Coleman was told he played out of tune and didn’t know the basics of jazz improvisation.

One incident remained deeply ingrained in his memory: The night in around 1950 when he was playing with an R&B band at a Louisiana road house and his solo stopped the dancers in their tracks. Coleman was dragged outside the club, roughed up, and his horn was thrown over a cliff.

“One guy kicked me in my stomach ... and said, ‘You can’t play like that!’ He didn’t even know what I was doing,” Coleman recalled. “I decided to take my beatings until I can establish where people can say, ‘Oh don’t beat him, listen.”’

Tired of rejection, Coleman moved to Los Angeles in 1952 and got a job as a department store lift operator, studying music theory in his breaks. Coleman, who a decade before the Beatles had shoulder-length hair and a beard, soon found a like-minded group of musicians, including bassist Charlie Haden, who had performed in his family’s bluegrass band in Missouri; Don Cherry, who played a tiny pocket trumpet, and drummer Billy Higgins. “The first time I played with Ornette all of a sudden the lights were turned on for me,” Haden said.

Coleman recorded his first album, Something Else, in 1958. The new sound caught the attention of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s pianist John Lewis, who called Coleman “the only really new thing in jazz since Charlie Parker in the mid-’40s.”

Lewis introduced Coleman to Atlantic Records producer Nesuhi Ertegun, who released the aptly titled The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959 with Coleman’s pianoless quartet. The album included Coleman’s most famous composition, the ballad “Lonely Woman”, its bluesy wails reflecting the leader’s southern roots.

The November 1959 New York debut of Coleman’s quartet at the Five Spot club in Manhattan - with the leader playing his plastic alto saxophone - set off a musical firestorm. Coleman’s radical new approach had its champions, including Leonard Bernstein. But many leading jazz musicians denounced him as a charlatan. Miles Davis remarked that “psychologically, the man is all screwed up inside,” a remark he later recanted. Undaunted, Coleman released a series of groundbreaking albums, including the 1961 double-quartet album, Free Jazz, which features a collective improvisation lasting nearly 40 minutes.

Coleman credited his mother with giving him the strength to overcome the adversity he faced growing up in a largely segregated Fort Worth, Texas, where he was born in 1930.

Coleman’s father died when he was seven, and his mother supported the family on her seamstress’s income. He bought his first saxophone when he was 14 from money he earned shining shoes and he taught himself how to play; as a teenager he was scolded by his church band leader for playing hot jazz licks.

“At that time bebop was just being born and Charlie Parker was the main man,” said Coleman. “I said, ‘Oh man, what kind of music is that?’ And I thought I’m going to play that.” Coleman once remarked that he could “play and sound like Charlie Parker note-for-note,” but decided he wanted to develop his own sound.

In the early 1960s, Coleman largely left the scene for several years to teach himself to play trumpet and violin in an unorthodox style, giving himself a more colourful sound palette. He stirred more controversy in 1966 when he recruited his 10-year-old son Denardo as drummer for his quartet. Denardo would go on to play regularly in his father’s bands.

Coleman did not believe in limits, musically or geographically. He journeyed to Morocco to play with the Master Musicians of Joujouka, performed with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead and composed a concerto, Skies of America, that he recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra.

“Ornette Coleman was a colossus who strode across our musical soundscape like a fiery comet,” Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart said. “He played like he was hearing far off signals from space and time... The Grateful Dead was inspired by his ability to transcend consciousness; you were never the same after hearing him blow that horn.”

Coleman said the title of his Pulitzer-winner Sound Grammar referred to his life-long search to decode the universal musical language that crosses all borders. “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.”


Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman, musician: born Fort Worth, Texas 9 March 1930; married 1954 Jayne Cortez (divorced 1964; one son); died 11 June 2015.