Ornette Coleman Dies at 85; Composer and Saxophonist Reshaped Jazz
Ornette Coleman, the alto saxophonist and composer who was one of the most powerful and contentious innovators in the history of jazz, died on Thursday morning in Manhattan. He was 85.
The cause was cardiac arrest, a representative of the family said.
Mr. Coleman widened the options in jazz and helped change its course. Partly through his example in the late 1950s and early ’60s, jazz became less beholden to the rules of harmony and rhythm, and gained more distance from the American songbook repertoire. His own music, then and later, became a new form of highly informed folk song: deceptively simple melodies for small groups with an intuitive, collective language, and a strategy for playing without preconceived chord sequences. In 2007, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his album “Sound Grammar.”
His early work — a kind of personal answer to his fellow alto saxophonist and innovator Charlie Parker — lay right within the jazz tradition and generated a handful of standards among jazz musicians of the last half-century. But he later challenged assumptions about jazz from top to bottom, bringing in his own ideas about instrumentation, process and technical expertise.
He was also more voluble and theoretical than John Coltrane, the other great pathbreaker of that era in jazz, and became known as a kind of musician-philosopher, with interests much wider than jazz alone; he was seen as a native avant-gardist and symbolized the American independent will as effectively as any artist of the last century.
Slight, Southern and soft-spoken, Mr. Coleman eventually became a visible part of New York cultural life, attending parties in bright satin suits; even when frail, he attracted attention. He could talk in nonspecific and sometimes baffling language about harmony and ontology; he became famous for utterances that were sometimes disarming in their freshness and clarity or that began to make sense about the 10th time you read them.
Yet his music was usually not so oblique. At best, it could be for everybody. Very few listeners today would need prompting to understand the appeal of his early songs like “Una Muy Bonita” (bright, bouncy) and “Lonely Woman” (tragic, flamencoesque). His run of records for Atlantic near the beginning of his career — especially “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” “Change of the Century” and “This Is Our Music” — pushed through skepticism, ridicule and condescension, as well as advocacy, to become recognized as some of the greatest albums in jazz history.
His composing voice, and his sense of band interplay, was intact by 1959, and this was the moment when he caught the ear of almost every important jazz musician in the world. He wrote short melody sketches, nearly always in a major key, which could sound like old children’s songs, and, in pieces like “Turnaround” and “When Will the Blues Leave?,” brilliant blues lines. With the crucial help of the trumpeter Don Cherry, he organized his band to act like separate hearts within a single organism.
Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman was born in Fort Worth on March 9, 1930, and lived in a house very near one of the many railroad tracks crisscrossing the area. According to various sources, his father, Randolph, who died when he was 7, was a construction worker and a cook, and his mother, Rosa, was a clerk in a funeral home; both, he liked to say, were born on Christmas Day. He attended I.M. Terrell High School — the same school that three of his future bandmates, the saxophonist Dewey Redman and the drummers Charles Moffett and Ronald Shannon Jackson, would later graduate from. Other graduates from the same school included the saxophonists King Curtis, Prince Lasha and Julius Hemphill; the clarinetist John Carter; and Red Connor, a bebop tenor saxophonist with no discographical trail who, Mr. Coleman often said, influenced him by playing jazz as “an idea,” rather than as a series of patterns.
Mr. Coleman’s melodies may be easy to appreciate, but his sense of harmony has been a complicated issue from the start. He has said that when he first learned to play the saxophone — his mother gave him an alto saxophone when he was around 14 — he didn’t understand that because of transposition between instruments, a C in the piano’s “concert key” was an A on his instrument. (He also seems to have believed that when he was reading CDEFGAB, a C-major scale, he was playing the notes ABCDEFG.) When he found out the truth, a lifelong suspicion of the rules of Western harmony and musical notation began.
In essence, Mr. Coleman believed that all people had their own tonal centers, and that “unison” — a word he often used, though not always in its normal musical-theory sense — was a group of people playing together harmoniously, even if in different keys.
“I’ve learned that everyone has their own moveable C,” he said to the writer Michael Jarrett in an interview published in 1995; he identified it as “Do,” the nontempered start of anyone singing or playing a “do-re-mi” major-scale sequence. During the same conversation, he remarked that he always wanted musicians to play with him “on a multiple level.”
“I don’t want them to follow me,” he explained. “I want them to follow themselves, but to be with me.”
Learning by ear, he played alto and then tenor saxophone in rhythm-and-blues and society bands around Texas, backing up vocalists and practicing the honking, gutbucket style that made stars out of Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb. But he had already become entranced by the new kind of jazz known as bebop, and by Parker’s heady, imaginative phrasing.
In 1949, he joined Silas Green From New Orleans, a popular traveling minstrel-show troupe on its last legs. He was fired in Natchez, Miss., he said, for trying to teach bebop to one of the other saxophonists.
In Natchez, he joined the band of the blind blues singer Clarence Samuels. While on tour with the group, he said, he was beaten by a gang of musicians outside a dance hall in Baton Rouge, La., for playing strangely; as the climax of a story he would repeat ever after in variations, they threw his saxophone down the street, or down a hill, or off a cliff.
Soon after the Baton Rouge experience, he moved to Los Angeles in 1953 to play with the R&B bandleader Pee Wee Crayton. In 1954, he married the poet Jayne Cortez, with whom he had a son, Denardo. They divorced in 1964. Mr. Coleman’s survivors include his son, who played drums with him on and off since the late 1960s, and a grandson.
Also in 1954, he bought a white plastic alto saxophone, which became a visual emblem of his early years. He stayed in Los Angeles for six years, finding a core group of musicians who were not only interested in playing his music but also helped define it, including the trumpeters Mr. Cherry and Bobby Bradford, the drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, and the bassist Charlie Haden.
These musicians were the exceptions; during his Los Angeles period, many wanted nothing to do with Mr. Coleman, a long-haired Jehovah’s Witness dressed in clothes made by his wife. In Mr. Cherry’s description, he “looked like some kind of black Christ figure, but no Christ anybody had ever seen before.”
In early 1958, Mr. Coleman made his first album, “Something Else!!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman,” for the Contemporary Records label. In a six-week run at the Hillcrest Club in late 1958 with a quintet — Mr. Coleman’s group now included Mr. Higgins on drums, as well as the pianist Paul Bley, and some of the music exists on tape — Mr. Haden’s style quickly reoriented itself around the bandleader, and there is no recording of Mr. Coleman that holds closer to the model of Charlie Parker. But he adhered less to a strict rhythmic grid than Parker did: Operating on his own sense of time, he raced and flagged and played his own proud blues lines, diatonic runs, and plump, raw, crying notes.
Mr. Coleman made one more record for Contemporary, “Tomorrow Is the Question!,” with Percy Heath and Red Mitchell on bass and Shelly Manne on drums — and, significantly, nobody on piano; the lack of a pianist to root the music in chords would characterize the sound of Mr. Coleman’s music for a long time thereafter. Then the Ornette Coleman Quartet — with Mr. Cherry, Mr. Haden, and Mr. Higgins — recorded six numbers for Atlantic in May 1959. (John Lewis, the pianist for the Modern Jazz Quartet, had championed Mr. Coleman to Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic Records.)
This session was released as “The Shape of Jazz to Come.” This was the first great Coleman band, built entirely of musicians empathetic with him; the record’s great swing and harmonic freedom, its intuitive communication between Mr. Coleman and Mr. Cherry, and its remarkable ease with nonstandard ways of playing jazz made it a classic. But it was not released before a few other events made Mr. Coleman notorious.
Later that year, Mr. Coleman was invited to the School of Jazz in Lenox, Mass., a summer institution run by John Lewis. He played in an array of concerts and workshops, fascinating some of the teaching musicians there and alienating others. He had an impact. “I believe that what Ornette Coleman is playing will affect the whole character of jazz music profoundly and pervasively,” the critic Martin Williams wrote upon hearing him at Lenox.
Then, with his quartet, he hit the Five Spot Café in Manhattan in November 1959 for his first New York gig, a two-week engagement that stretched to two and a half months. (In an unusual move, critics were invited for an early preview on the first night.)
It suddenly became fashionable that winter for journalists to ask established jazz musicians what they thought of Mr. Coleman’s jolting music. Many said, essentially, that he was unformed but promising. John S. Wilson of The New York Times heard him at the Five Spot and wrote a few months later that he had found his playing “shrill, meandering, and pointlessly repetitious” — although by that time Mr. Wilson had already begun revising his opinion. The trumpeter Roy Eldridge did his due diligence on Mr. Coleman before forming an opinion. “I listened to him high and I listened to him cold sober,” he said. “I even played with him. I think he’s jiving, baby.”
In the quartet, Mr. Coleman and Mr. Cherry could be soloing together harmoniously, yet very loosely, sometimes clashing and sometimes flying together; Mr. Cherry described it as playing as if every note were the tonic note, the home note of a song’s key. Mr. Haden helped the music cohere by creating a strong tonal center, and the front-line musicians were only loosely tied to the pulse of the drummer. (Later, Mr. Coleman would coin a term for the music’s guiding principles: “harmolodics,” a contraction of harmony, movement and melody. He claimed to have been working on a book about harmolodic theory, but it was never completed or published.)
In a little under two years, the group made enough music for nine records with Atlantic, including “Free Jazz,” made with a “double quartet” of four musicians in each audio channel. It was not quite “free jazz,” though. Despite the great harmonic mobility among all the musicians, Mr. Coleman relied on polished written melodies to cut the piece into episodes; rhythmically, Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins swung hard, and not in free rhythm.
Mr. Coleman’s music had such a force that even John Coltrane said, in 1961, that 12 minutes he had spent on stage with Coleman amounted to “the most intense moment of my life.”
Around this point Mr. Coleman’s group began to rupture. Disaffected with the normal business practices of jazz, Mr. Coleman started seeking more control for his music and better pay; raising his price brought his bookings down to a dribble in 1961. Mr. Haden was hospitalized for heroin addiction; Mr. Cherry, needing work, joined Sonny Rollins. In 1962 Mr. Coleman rented the Town Hall, the New York performance space, to play with his new trio, which featured David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on drums, and on one piece, with a string quartet.
It was the beginning of Mr. Coleman’s public career in classical music, a much more dissonant and self-consciously European-modernist body of work. He retreated from performance and did not return until 1965, thereby separating himself from the emergence of New York’s free-jazz scene.
When he reappeared, at the Village Vanguard jazz club, he was playing trumpet and violin as well as alto saxophone. He wrote music on a well-paid commission for “Chappaqua,” a movie about drug addiction by the Avon cosmetics scion Conrad Rooks. Mr. Coleman’s work was rejected by that filmmaker, even though the music, for jazz quartet and orchestra, was eventually released by Columbia Records.
In 1966 he made the album “The Empty Foxhole,” with Mr. Haden on bass and his son on drums. Denardo Coleman was 10, and it sounded as if his influences might have been free jazz and his own prepubescent limbic system.
In the late ’60s, Mr. Coleman bought an industrial building in prefashionable SoHo, on Prince Street, and began his do-it-yourself life in earnest, calling his building Artists House and producing concerts. He formed a new band that included Dewey Redman on tenor saxophone; among its albums, for Blue Note and Columbia, were “New York Is Now!” and “Science Fiction.”
In the early ’70s, Mr. Coleman began writing a concerto grosso called “Skies of America,” eventually recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1972. It was the purest demonstration of his harmolodic principle, with parallel lines for orchestra members to play as written, rather than transposing to fit their instruments’ home keys.
In 1973, he traveled to the Rif mountains of Morocco to collaborate with the famed musicians of Jajouka; a short recording of these encounters, with the Jajouka reed players’ untempered approach, confirmed his belief that the “concert key” system of Western tonality was misguided, appeared on his album “Dancing in Your Head,” released in 1977.
It was that album that marked the beginning of Prime Time, Mr. Coleman’s first electric band (it included two guitarists), and a new chapter in his music. Loud, jagged and densely woven, it took few cues from rock; nonetheless, it had an influence not only on the outer circles of jazz but on what would later be called post-punk, the sound of late-’70s bands like the Pop Group and the Minutemen.
Meanwhile, Mr. Coleman was releasing records with Prime Time on his own Artists House label, founded in 1977 with the record producer and lawyer John Snyder, and on A&M Records at the same time. He appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in 1979, one of the few jazz artists to do so. He moved his base of operations to a building on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side, made his son his manager, and worked with Caravan of Dreams, a new performance center and record label based in his hometown, Fort Worth. For his performances there to open the club in 1983, he was given the key to the city.
In 1985, he collaborated with the guitarist Pat Metheny on the album “Song X”; in 1987, he released “In All Languages,” a double album with Prime Time on one disc and his original acoustic quartet on the other. And in 1988 he released “Virgin Beauty,” a Prime Time album with the Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead on board at times as a third guitarist. In 1991, he played on Howard Shore’s soundtrack to the film “Naked Lunch,” based on the novel by William Burroughs.
By this time Mr. Coleman was the avant-garde establishment. He was awarded a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master fellowship in 1984, and was made a MacArthur Foundation fellow in 1994; he had reached old-master status on the jazz-performance circuit, and gave regular concerts — again with a white saxophone, but metal, not plastic — that were well publicized and well attended, if sometimes curious or outrageous.
He played for four nights at Lincoln Center in the summer of 1997, presenting “Skies of America,” conducted by Kurt Masur; his old quartet music; and a strange show called “Tone Dialing” (after his 1995 album of the same name), with dancers, video, circus performers walking on nails and broken glass, and Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson.
Mr. Coleman formed a new quartet in 2004, with two bassists and Denardo Coleman on drums, and started a new record label, Sound Grammar. In 2007, the same year he won the Pulitzer Prize, he received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award and performed at the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee. To the alarm of the audience, he passed out from heat stroke, recovering at a nearby hospital.
“One of the things I am experiencing is very important,” he said in his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech. “And that is: You don’t have to die to kill and you don’t have to kill to die. And above all, nothing exists that is not in the form of life because life is eternal with or without people, so we are grateful for life to be here at this very moment.”