Ornette Coleman, one of the jazz avant-garde’s leading innovators of the ’50s and ’60s as a composer, instrumentalist and theoretician, died of cardiac arrest in Manhattan on Thursday. He was 85.
Historian and critic Martin Williams wrote that Coleman’s music represented “the first fundamental re-evaluation of basic materials and basic procedures for jazz since the innovations of (’40s bebop pioneer) Charlie Parker.”
A saxophonist who later took up the trumpet and violin, Coleman rose to prominence with a series of recordings for the Contemporary and Atlantic labels that deployed radically new approaches to melody, harmony, rhythm, intonation and pitch. Over time, he would refer to his body of musical theory as “harmolodics.”
His liberated approach — often branded “free jazz,” after the title of a 1960 album — had a pronounced impact on such contemporaries as John Coltrane and Albert Ayler and influenced a legion of “outside” players who followed him. Yet upon its arrival, his freewheeling music was not without its detractors: Miles Davis famously said Coleman sounded “all screwed up inside.”
While he first made his mark with a gifted ’60s quartet that included trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummers Billy Higgins and Edward Blackwell, Coleman later branched into his own brand of jazz fusion with the ’70s electric band Prime Time. He also authored a number of neoclassical works, including the symphonic “Skies of America.”
He was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and his mother bought him an alto saxophone when he was 14. His only formal study of the instrument came in some brief tutoring from Walter “Foots” Thomas, a onetime member of Cab Calloway’s band, during a trip to New York.
Taking up the tenor sax, Coleman fell under the sway of bebop pioneer Charlie Parker and began playing in a honking R&B style with Fort Worth combos. In 1949, with an unorthodox instrumental attack already in place, he secured a job with Silas Green From New Orleans, a touring minstrel troupe that dated back to the ’20s. His playing so enraged an audience in Baton Rouge that he was beaten and his horn destroyed.
After a sojourn in New Orleans, Coleman joined the touring band of blues singer-guitarist Pee Wee Crayton, who later denied Coleman’s assertion that he paid the saxophonist to refrain from playing. Crayton’s group broke up in Los Angeles, and Coleman settled in the city. His unorthodox music, which he played on a white plastic alto saxophone, was scorned by local hard bop players, but he found work with pianist Paul Bley.
After years of struggle, Coleman was finally able to record his music via Lester Koenig of the L.A. jazz label Contemporary. The resultant albums, “Something Else!!!!” (1958) and “Tomorrow Is the Question!” (1959), instantly made Coleman one of the most talked-about and divisive figures in jazz.
Pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet became a supporter and helped secure Coleman a deal with the prominent New York label Atlantic, which also recorded the MJQ. The prophetically titled “The Shape of Jazz to Come” (1959) began Coleman’s prolific two-year association with the label. While the bop roots of the music are immediately evident to today’s listeners, the unconventional tonal and rhythmic approach of his band nonplussed audiences of the day reared on hard bop and cool jazz.
At around the time of Coleman’s Atlantic debut, his pianoless working quartet (with Cherry, Haden and Higgins) began an engagement at New York’s Five Spot Cafe. George Hoefer of Down Beat magazine summarized divergent opinions of listeners at a press preview:
“‘He’ll change the entire course of jazz.’ ‘He’s a fake.’ ‘He’s a genius.’ ‘He swings like HELL.’ ‘I’m going home and listening to my Benny Goodman trios and quartets.’ ‘He’s out, real far out.’ ‘I like him, but I don’t have any idea of what he is doing.’”
Coleman’s succeeding Atlantic quartet releases, “Change of the Century” (1959) and “This Is Our Music” (1960), further divided listeners. The most controversial of his albums was “Free Jazz,” an oft-cacophonous album-long collective improvisation by a double quartet that included saxophonist Eric Dolphy and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.
Two more Atlantic collections followed, including one featuring Coleman on tenor, but personnel problems led him to dissolve his group. He began an association with Blue Note Records with a live recording by his trio featuring bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett.
He further riled purists by recording “The Empty Foxhole” (1966) with his 10-year-old son Denardo on drums; while the album was widely mocked, the younger Coleman worked sympathetically with his father for the duration of his career and even acted as his manager for a time.
By the late ’60s, Coleman had organized another quartet with tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman. He also began recording as a trumpeter and violinist and composed several longform pieces employing strings. A contract with Columbia Records resulted in the jazz album “Science Fiction” (1971) and the orchestral “Skies of America” (1972), but Coleman’s complaints about the recording and marketing of the latter release led to a schism with the label.
In 1976, the quartet Old and New Dreams, comprising Coleman sidemen Cherry, Redman, Haden and Blackwell, recorded the first of several albums devoted to their former leader’s repertoire.
The same year, Coleman released “Dancing in Your Head,” the first of his “free funk” electric albums with Prime Time, on A&M’s Horizon imprint. Similar projects — which introduced such gifted young players as guitarist James Blood Ulmer, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson — followed on Coleman’s own Artists House imprint, Antilles and Fort Worth’s Caravan of Dreams label.
Some major label projects were released sporadically. “Song X,” a notable collaboration with guitarist Pat Metheny, was issued by Geffen in 1986. “Virgin Beauty” (1988), on CBS’ Portrait imprint, featured guitarist Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead on several tracks. In 1991, Milan Records issued Howard Shore’s soundtrack for “Naked Lunch,” director David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the William S. Burroughs novel, with Coleman as the lead soloist.
As the eminence grise of free jazz, Coleman issued four albums (including two with Geri Allen on piano) on his custom imprint Harmolodic through Verve in 1995-97. A decade later, the self-released “Sound Grammar” (2006), recorded live in Germany by a quartet comprising Coleman, son Denardo and two bassists, brought the musician an unprecedented Pulitzer Prize in 2007.
Also that year, Coleman received a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy.
Coleman, who was divorced from wife Jayne Cortez in 1964, is survived by his son.