Jazz Legend Ornette Coleman Dead at 85
NEW YORK (AP) — Jazz legend Ornette Coleman, the visionary saxophonist and composer who pioneered “free jazz” and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007, has died.
Publicist Ken Weinstein says Coleman died on Thursday at 1 a.m. in Manhattan. He was 85.
The Texas-born Coleman was only the second jazz artist to win the Pulitzer in music when he was honored for his 2006 album “Sound Grammar.”
Coleman is regarded as one of the greatest innovators in jazz history along with Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. In the late 1950s, he originated “free jazz,” challenging the bebop establishment by abandoning the conventional song form and liberating musicians to freely improvise off of the melody rather than the underlying chord changes. Coleman broke down the barrier between leader and sidemen, giving his band members freedom to solo, interact and develop their ideas.
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 being tethered to rigid metric or harmonic structure.
“I want everyone to have an equal relationship to the results,” Coleman told the AP in a 2007 interview. “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.”
In his later years, the jazz revolutionary became a respected elder statesman with the accompanying honors, including membership in the elite American Academy of Arts and Letters, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master award, and a Grammy lifetime achievement award, even though none of his recordings ever won a Grammy.
“With his prodigious saxophone skills, improvisational prowess and innovative compositions, Ornette Coleman was a true pioneer of jazz in America,” Neil Portnow, president and CEO of the Recording Academy which presents the Grammys, said in a statement:
But early in his career, Coleman’s unconventional playing led him to be rejected by both 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 circa 1950 when the saxophonist 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,” recalled Coleman in the AP interview. “I think with dance music it’s the rhythm that people like and I was just playing musical ideas. But I really did grow when I realized that all music uses the same notes whether it’s classical or religious or funk. … And when I realized that … 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 where he got a job as a department store elevator operator, studying music theory on 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 back 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,” with its bluesy wails reflecting the leader’s southern roots.
The November 1959 New York debut of Coleman’s quartet – with the leader playing his plastic alto saxophone – at the Five Spot club on Manhattan’s Lower East Side 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,” although he later recanted his opinion.
Undaunted, Coleman released a series of groundbreaking albums, including the 1961 double-quartet album, “Free Jazz” with a nearly 40-minute collective improvisation.
Coleman credits 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 on March 9, 1930.
Coleman’s father died when he was 7, and his mother supported the family on her seamstress earnings. She bought him 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 on the saxohone.
“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 said in an interview that he could “play and sound like Charlie Parker note-for-note,” but decided he wanted to develop his own conception of 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 colorful sound palette.
He stirred more controversy when he tapped his 10-year-old son Denardo to be the drummer in his quartet in 1966. Denardo would go on to play regularly in his father’s bands, including the electric free-funk fusion band Prime Time formed in the 1970s.
Coleman considered himself more than a jazz player. He journeyed to Morocco to play with the Master Musicians of Joujouka, performed with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, and composed a concerto, “Skies of America,” that he recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Coleman said the title of his Pulitzer-winning album “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,” Coleman said in the AP interview.