...The Texas-born Coleman was only the second jazz artist to win the Pulitzer Prize in music when he was honored for his 2006 album "Sound Grammar."
His quartet shook up the jazz establishment when it burst on the scene in 1959 with the album "The Shape of Jazz to Come," which liberated musicians to freely improvise off the melody.
ORNETTE COLEMAN - Excerpts From the Documentary
1959 The Year that Changed Jazz
1959 The Year that Changed Jazz
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 meters and conventional harmonic structure. He referred to it as "removing the caste system from sound."
ORNETTE COLEMAN - The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959 -Full Album)
"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 and a Grammy lifetime achievement award, even though none of his recordings ever won a Grammy.
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. One bandleader paid him not to solo; others simply fired him. Coleman was told he played out-of-tune and didn't know the basics of jazz improvisation.
"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.
Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman (March 9, 1930 – June 11, 2015) was an American jazz saxophonist, violinist, trumpeter and composer. He was one of the major innovators of the free jazz movement of the 1960s, a term he invented with the name of an album. Coleman's timbre was easily recognized: his keening, crying sound drew heavily on blues music. His album Sound Grammar received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for music.
Early lifeColeman was born in 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas, where he was also raised. He attended I.M. Terrell High School, where he participated in band until he was dismissed for improvising during "The Washington Post." He began performing R&B and bebop initially on tenor saxophone, and started a band, the Jam Jivers, with some fellow students including Prince Lasha and Charles Moffett. Seeking a way to work his way out of his home town, he took a job in 1949 with a Silas Green from New Orleans traveling show and then with touring rhythm and blues shows. After a show in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he was assaulted and his saxophone was destroyed.
From the beginning of his career, Coleman's music and playing were in many ways unorthodox. His approach to harmony and chord progression was far less rigid than that of bebop performers; he was increasingly interested in playing what he heard rather than fitting it into predetermined chorus-structures and harmonies. His raw, highly vocalized sound and penchant for playing "in the cracks" of the scale led many Los Angeles jazz musicians to regard Coleman's playing as out-of-tune. He sometimes had difficulty finding like-minded musicians with whom to perform. Nevertheless, pianist Paul Bley was an early supporter and musical collaborator.
In 1958, Coleman led his first recording session for Contemporary, Something Else!!!!: The Music of Ornette Coleman. The session also featured trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Don Payne and Walter Norris on piano.
The Shape of Jazz to Come1959 was a notably productive year for Coleman. His last release on Contemporary was Tomorrow Is the Question!, a quartet album, with Shelly Manne on drums, and excluding the piano, which he would not use again until the 1990s. Next Coleman brought double bassist Charlie Haden – one of a handful of his most important collaborators – into a regular group with Cherry and Higgins. (All four had played with Paul Bley the previous year.) He signed a multi-album contract with Atlantic Records who released The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959. It was, according to critic Steve Huey, "a watershed event in the genesis of avant-garde jazz, profoundly steering its future course and throwing down a gauntlet that some still haven't come to grips with." While definitely – if somewhat loosely – blues-based and often quite melodic, the album's compositions were considered at that time harmonically unusual and unstructured. Some musicians and critics saw Coleman as an iconoclast; others, including conductor Leonard Bernstein and composer Virgil Thomson regarded him as a genius and an innovator.
Coleman's unique early sound was due in part to his use of a plastic saxophone. He had first bought a plastic horn in Los Angeles in 1954 because he was unable to afford a metal saxophone, though he didn't like the sound of the plastic instrument at first. Coleman later claimed that it sounded drier, without the pinging sound of metal. In later years, he played a metal saxophone.
On the Atlantic recordings, Coleman's sidemen in the quartet are Cherry on cornet or pocket trumpet, Haden, Scott LaFaro, and then Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Higgins or his replacement Ed Blackwell on drums. The complete released recordings for the label were collected on the box set Beauty Is a Rare Thing.
Free JazzIn 1960, Coleman recorded Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, which featured a double quartet, including Cherry and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, Haden and LaFaro on bass, and both Higgins and Blackwell on drums. The record was recorded in stereo, with a reed/brass/bass/drums quartet isolated in each stereo channel. Free Jazz was, at nearly 40 minutes, the lengthiest recorded continuous jazz performance to date, and was instantly one of Coleman's most controversial albums. The music features a regular but complex pulse, one drummer playing "straight" while the other played double-time; the thematic material is a series of brief, dissonant fanfares. As is conventional in jazz, there are a series of solo features for each member of the band, but the other soloists are free to chime in as they wish, producing some extraordinary passages of collective improvisation by the full octet. In the January 18, 1962 issue of Down Beat magazine, in a special review titled "Double View of a Double Quartet," Pete Welding awarded the album Five Stars while John A. Tynan rated it No Stars.
Coleman originally intended "Free Jazz" as simply an album title, but his growing reputation placed him at the forefront of jazz innovation, and free jazz was soon considered a new genre, though Coleman has expressed discomfort with the term. Among the reasons Coleman may not have entirely approved of the term 'free jazz' in that his music contains a considerable amount of composition. His melodic material, although skeletal, strongly recalls the melodies that Charlie Parker wrote over standard harmonies, and in general the music is closer to the bebop that came before it than is sometimes popularly imagined. (Several early tunes of his, for instance, are clearly based on favorite bop chord changes like "Out of Nowhere" and "I Got Rhythm".) Coleman very rarely played standards, concentrating on his own compositions, of which there seemed to be an endless flow. There are exceptions, though, including a classic reading (virtually a recomposition) of "Embraceable You" for Atlantic, and an improvisation on Thelonious Monk's "Criss-Cross" recorded with Gunther Schuller.
After the Atlantic period and into the early part of the 1970s, Coleman's music became more angular and engaged fully with the jazz avant-garde which had developed in part around his innovations.
His quartet dissolved, and Coleman formed a new trio with David Izenzon on bass, and Charles Moffett on drums. Coleman began to extend the sound-range of his music, introducing accompanying string players (though far from the territory of Charlie Parker with Strings) and playing trumpet and violin (which he played left-handed) himself. He initially had little conventional musical technique and used the instruments to make large, unrestrained gestures. His friendship with Albert Ayler influenced his development on trumpet and violin. Haden would later sometimes join this trio to form a two-bass quartet.
Blue Note Records and released a number of recordings starting with the influential recordings of the trio At the Golden Circle Stockholm.
In 1966, Coleman was criticized for recording The Empty Foxhole, a trio with Haden, and Coleman's son Denardo Coleman – who was ten years old. Some[who?] regarded this as perhaps an ill-advised piece of publicity on Coleman's part and judged the move a mistake. Others, however,[who?] noted that despite his youth, Denardo had studied drumming for several years. His technique – which, though unrefined, was respectable and enthusiastic – owed more to pulse-oriented free jazz drummers like Sunny Murray than to bebop drumming. Denardo has matured into a respected musician, and has been his father's primary drummer since the late 1970s.
Coleman formed another quartet. A number of bassists and drummers (including Haden, Garrison and Elvin Jones) appeared, and Dewey Redman joined the group, usually on tenor saxophone.
He also continued to explore his interest in string textures – from Town Hall, 1962, culminating in Skies of America in 1972. (Sometimes this had a practical value, as it facilitated his group's appearance in the UK in 1965, where jazz musicians were under a quota arrangement but classical performers were exempt.)
In 1969, Coleman was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.
Later CareerColeman, like Miles Davis before him, took to playing with electrified instruments. Albums like Virgin Beauty and Of Human Feelings used rock and funk rhythms, sometimes called free funk. On the face of it, this could seem to be an adoption of the jazz fusion mode fashionable at the time, but Coleman's first record with the group, which later became known as Prime Time (the 1976 Dancing in Your Head), was sufficiently different that it had considerable shock value. Electric guitars were prominent, but the music was, at heart, rather similar to his earlier work. These performances have the same angular melodies and simultaneous group improvisations – what Joe Zawinul referred to as "nobody solos, everybody solos" and what Coleman called harmolodics – and although the nature of the pulse was altered, Coleman's own rhythmic approach did not.
Some critics[who?] have suggested Coleman's frequent use of the vaguely defined term harmolodics is a musical MacGuffin: a red herring of sorts designed to occupy critics overly focused on Coleman's sometimes unorthodox compositional style.
In 1990, the city of Reggio Emilia in Italy held a three-day "Portrait of the Artist" featuring a Coleman quartet with Cherry, Haden and Higgins. The festival also presented performances of his chamber music and the symphonic Skies of America.
In 1991, Coleman played on the soundtrack for David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch; the orchestra was conducted by Howard Shore. It is notable among other things for including a rare sighting of Coleman playing a jazz standard: Thelonious Monk's blues line "Misterioso". Two 1972 (pre-electric) Coleman recordings, "Happy House" and "Foreigner in a Free Land" were used in Gus Van Sant's 2000 Finding Forrester.
The mid-1990s saw a flurry of activity from Coleman: he released four records in 1995 and 1996, and for the first time in many years worked regularly with piano players (either Geri Allen or Joachim Kühn).
In 2004 Coleman was awarded The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the richest prizes in the arts, given annually to "a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind's enjoyment and understanding of life."
In September 2006 he released a live album titled Sound Grammar with his newest quartet (Denardo drumming and two bassists, Gregory Cohen and Tony Falanga). This was his first album of new material in ten years, and was recorded in Germany in 2005. It won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for music, Coleman being only the second jazz artist to win the prize.
On July 9, 2009, Coleman received the Miles Davis Award, a recognition given by the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal to musicians who have contributed to continuing the tradition of jazz.
On May 1, 2010, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Music from the University of Michigan for his musical contributions.
Jazz pianist Joanne Brackeen (who had only briefly studied music as a child) stated in an interview with Marian McPartland that Coleman had been mentoring her and giving her semi-formal music lessons in recent years.
Coleman continued to push himself into unusual playing situations, often with much younger musicians or musicians from radically different musical cultures. An increasing number of his compositions, while not ubiquitous, have become minor jazz standards, including "Lonely Woman", "Peace", "Turnaround", "When Will the Blues Leave?", "The Blessing", "Law Years", "What Reason Could I Give" and "I've Waited All My Life". He has influenced virtually every saxophonist of a modern disposition, and nearly every such jazz musician, of the generation that followed him. His songs have proven endlessly malleable: pianists such as Paul Bley and Paul Plimley have managed to turn them to their purposes; John Zorn recorded Spy vs Spy (1989), an album of extremely loud, fast, and abrupt versions of Coleman songs. Finnish jazz singer Carola covered Coleman's "Lonely Woman" and there have even been progressive bluegrass versions of Coleman tunes (by Richard Greene).
Personal Life and Death
Coleman married poet Jayne Cortez in 1954. The couple divorced in 1964. They had one son, Denardo, born in 1956, who became a notable jazz drummer.
Coleman died of a cardiac arrest at the age of 85 in New York City on June 11, 2015.