Coleman, Ornette

Coleman, Ornette
▪ 1994

      "I believe music is really a free thing," said Ornette Coleman, "and any way you can enjoy it, you should." When Coleman burst upon the jazz scene in 1959, there were two reasons for the sensation he caused. First, there was the intensity of the unrestrained melody and compelling, crying sound that poured from Coleman's white plastic alto saxophone. Second, there was his shocking, free approach to improvising; he abandoned the fixed harmonic patterns that had been the basis of jazz structure for its entire previous existence. "He's a fake," said some listeners; "He's a genius," said others; and the controversy over the jazz revolution that Coleman began continued into the 1990s.

      In 1993, a year when Coleman seldom performed in concert, the publication of the first biographical-critical study of him and the release of his six-CD boxed set, Beauty Is a Rare Thing, brought Coleman back into the headlines once again. The boxed set gathered all of his 1959-61 recordings for Atlantic Records, including two works by Gunther Schuller, seven quartet pieces that had appeared only on a Japanese LP, and six tracks previously believed lost. They included recordings as influential as Louis Armstrong's and Charlie Parker's early masterpieces.

      Born on March 19, 1930, in Fort Worth, Texas, Coleman began playing saxes as a teenager. Early in his career he was fired from a touring minstrel troupe and assaulted by enraged listeners on a blues tour; he also became fascinated with the unexplored harmonic and melodic possibilities of bebop. In Los Angeles, where he lived in the 1950s, and where poverty forced him to buy a plastic sax instead of a standard metal horn, he was considered eccentric. Nevertheless, he taught his harmolodic theory—"using the melody, the harmony and the rhythm all equal"—to young musicians and made his first recordings.

      Coleman's New York debut, in 1959, made him an instant celebrity. A small, growing set of musicians, including John Coltrane and Miles Davis, adopted his "free jazz" principles. After years of struggle, Coleman found himself overworked, and in 1963 he retired to compose and to teach himself to play trumpet and violin, returning in 1965 as leader of a new trio. Thereafter, he alternated periods of performing and touring with long periods of composing; although several of his chamber works were recorded, only one of his orchestral works, an edited version of his symphony Skies of America, was released in an album.

      Controversy seemed to follow Coleman's every move, and the use of his 10-year-old son in his band especially drew criticism. In the 1970s, when free jazz had become the mainstream of jazz evolution, Coleman played with the traditional musicians of a Moroccan mountain village, and then he formed an electric jazz-rock band, Prime Time. The band continued to be his principal performing medium, to the groans of critics, who relented long enough to praise his 1991 soundtrack solos in the film Naked Lunch; he expended most of his musical energies, however, in composing. A symphony, The Oldest Language, was conceived as a performance piece for ethnic players from around the world. (JOHN LITWEILER)

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▪ American musician
in full  Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman  
born March 9, 1930, Fort Worth, Texas, U.S.
 American jazz saxophonist, composer, and bandleader who was the principal initiator and leading exponent of “ free jazz” in the late 1950s.

      Coleman began playing alto, then tenor saxophone as a teenager and soon became a working musician in dance bands and rhythm-and-blues groups. Early in his career, his approach to harmony was already unorthodox and led to his rejection by established musicians in Los Angeles, where he lived for most of the 1950s. While working as an elevator operator, he studied harmony and played an inexpensive plastic alto saxophone at obscure nightclubs. Until then, all jazz improvisation had been based on fixed harmonic patterns. In the “harmolodic theory” that Coleman developed in the 1950s, however, improvisers abandoned harmonic patterns (“chord changes”) in order to improvise more extensively and directly upon melodic and expressive elements. Because the tonal centres of such music changed at the improvisers' will, it became known as “free jazz.”

 In the late 1950s Coleman formed a group with trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins, and bassist Charlie Haden, with whom he recorded his first album, Something Else (1958). His classic recordings The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century in 1959 preceded his move that year to New York City, where his radical conception of structure and the urgent emotionality of his improvisations aroused widespread controversy. His recordings Free Jazz (1960), which used two simultaneously improvising jazz quartets, and “Beauty Is a Rare Thing,” in which he successfully experimented with free metres and tempos, also proved influential.

      In the 1960s Coleman taught himself to play the violin and trumpet, using unorthodox techniques. By the 1970s he was performing only irregularly, preferring instead to compose. His most notable extended composition is the suite Skies of America, which was recorded in 1972 by the London Symphony Orchestra joined by Coleman on alto saxophone. Influenced by his experience of improvising with native musicians in the Rif Mountains of Morocco in 1973, Coleman formed an electric band called Prime Time, whose music was a fusion of rock rhythms with harmonically free collective improvisations; this band remained his primary performance vehicle until the 1990s. In 2005, with a quartet made up of two acoustic double bass players (one bowing his instrument, the other plucking), a drummer, and Coleman himself (playing alto saxophone, trumpet, and violin), he recorded Sound Grammar during a live performance in Italy; the work, which was said to hearken back to his music of the 1960s, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2007. Coleman's early style influenced not only fellow saxophonists but also players of all other instruments in jazz.

Additional Reading
John Litweiler, Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life (1993), is a full-length biography.

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Universalium. 2010.

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