Ornette Coleman dead: Pioneering jazz musician dies aged 85

The self-taught free jazz saxophonist died in New York

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The Independent Online

Ornette Coleman, the alto saxophonist whose avant-garde sound revolutionised jazz music, died at home in New York early yesterday, aged 85. The New York Times reported that the cause of death was cardiac arrest.

Coleman pioneered experimental jazz from the late 1950s onwards, with an influential approach big on improvisation and small on traditional musical structure.

His first LP, Something Else!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman, in 1958, and his ground-breaking residency at the Five Spot jazz club in New York earned him both admirers and critics. While some audience members were spellbound by his performances, others conspicuously walked out or argued publicly with their fellow listeners about the merits of his performance style.

In 1959, Atlantic Records released Coleman’s second album, The Shape of Jazz to Come, which is now thought of as a landmark in jazz history. His last live LP, Sound Grammar, was released in 2007 and won its creator the Pulitzer Prize. In the same year, Coleman was also awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement.

Born poor in Fort Worth, Texas, in March 1930, Coleman was raised by a single mother and sister. He supposedly acquired his first saxophone at the age of 14 with money earned from shining shoes, and taught himself to play without any knowledge of, or interest in, musical convention. He was reprimanded by a 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.”

As a teenager he left home to tour the South with a Texas rhythm and blues band, but his free, improvisatory playing style polarised audiences and even his fellow band members.


After moving to Los Angeles in 1954, a broke Coleman bought himself a plastic saxophone, the instrument that ended up shaping his signature sound. He subverted accepted jazz strictures on his records, coining the term and the concept of free jazz with 1961’s Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation.

Coleman defined his contrarian approach as “harmolodics”, a combination of harmony, melody and movement that, he said “removed the caste system from music”.

Some jazz musicians were baffled, others bedazzled by his improvisatory boldness. In 1960, celebrated trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie confessed: “I don’t know what he’s playing.” The following year John Coltrane described the 12 minutes he had spent on stage alongside Coleman as “the most intense moment of my life”.

The trumpeter Roy Eldridge said of Coleman: “I listened to him high and I listened to him cold sober. I even played with him. I think he’s jiving, baby.”

Coleman’s later collaborators included musicians from beyond the jazz sphere, including Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, Lou Reed and Yoko Ono.

He was married for 10 years to poet Jayne Cortez, from 1954 to 1964. The couple had a son, Denardo, who would go on to play drums with his father and even act as his manager in his later career.

Speaking to Rolling Stone in 1989, Coleman said he always intended to write music not for a niche of aficionados, but for the masses. “All I wanted to do was write music that people would like,” he said. “I always told people I was commercial, because I was the only person doing what I was doing. Nobody did it but me. There’s not two Coca-Colas; there’s only one Coca-Cola. I thought of myself on that level.”