Ornette Coleman Dies at 85
- Ornette Coleman performs at The Bell Atlanic Jazz Festival in Battery Park, New York June 1, 2000.
- Getty Images
Ornette Coleman, an alto saxophonist whose highly expressive approach to jazz both jolted listeners and deeply influenced jazz, rock and funk musicians in the 1960s and beyond, died Thursday morning in Manhattan. He was 85.
From his first album, “Something Else!!!” in 1958, Coleman eschewed earlier, more commercially acceptable jazz styles, opting instead for a more intuitive and explosive approach to improvisation. The result was a free form that focused more intently on fleet flurries of notes rather than tone, harmony and chord progressions. Beauty wasn’t part of the mix—or rather, Coleman was inventing a new form of jagged beauty that reflected the individual’s feelings at any given moment.
Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1930, Coleman moved to New Orleans in the late 1940s, where he played tenor saxophone in R&B bands. An altercation after a show in Baton Rouge, La., left his instrument crushed, causing him to switch to the more nimble and more portable alto saxophone. He joined Pee Wee Crayton’s R&B band in the early 1950s in Los Angeles, where he worked at a series of menial day jobs and played jazz clubs at night.
Related: Ornette Coleman: 5 Clips That Show His Musical Versatility
But his free approach became problematic, particularly in Los Angeles, one of the most competitive recording markets in the country at the time. Instead of conforming to the technical principles of commercial jazz, Coleman was more inspired to explore abstraction. As a result, his notes tended to sound sour, or off-key, while his music came across to some as frantic and aimless—more wailing than swinging. At some clubs, musicians packed up their instruments and walked out.
In truth, Coleman knew exactly what he was doing and, as many peers soon found out, the so-called free music he was playing wasn’t easy to duplicate with sophistication. “When I went to Los Angeles in early 1957, Ornette and I used to practice on the beach,” said tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, 84, in a phone interview. “Ornette was authentic. He wasn’t just jumping into improvisation. He knew exactly what he was doing. He was channeling Charlie Parker’s free spirit.”
Following Coleman’s second album for the West Coast Contemporary jazz label, “Tomorrow Is the Question!” in 1959, Coleman signed with Atlantic. Several months later he recorded “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” a free-jazz manifesto that featured Don Cherry on cornet, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins. A series of important free jazz albums followed for Atlantic.
While Coleman wasn’t the first to record a freer form of jazz—the Lennie Tristano Sextet with Lee Konitz in March 1949 is widely considered to be first, with “Intuition” and “Digression”—Coleman was first to more fully explore free jazz without rehearsed melody, harmony or rhythm in the LP era.
While Coleman’s recordings didn’t generate substantial AM-radio play or sales, his music had a profound impact on John Coltrane, Miles Davis and other avant-garde jazz artists in the 1960s who were looking for ways to break free from the confines of previous jazz styles and express themselves more fully and emotionally.
In the decades that followed, Coleman recorded every few years. In 2010, an ailing Mr. Coleman appeared on stage at the Beacon Theatre as a surprise guest at an 80th birthday concert by Sonny Rollins. Mr. Rollins, who also experimented with a freer form of jazz in the early 1960s, traded solos with Coleman, inching closer to Coleman’s free approach while Coleman came closer to Mr. Rollins’ style. It was a duel that Mr. Rollins later said touched him deeply.
“Ornette was adventurous,” said Mr. Rollins. “It takes enormous courage to play music that many people might not like and to stick with it, no matter what. In this regard, Ornette made a great contribution that freed a lot of artists to go further and look deeper inside themselves.”
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