On May 22, 1959, just one month after Miles Davis had recorded his modal masterpiece (the best-selling jazz record of all time) and two weeks after Charles Mingus had recorded his landmark Mingus Ah Um, Ornette Coleman went into the studio with his white Grafton plastic saxophone and a like-minded crew of bassist Charlie Haden, trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins to record his prophetically-titled The Shape of Jazz to Come. Unlike his 1958 Contemporary Records debut, Something Else!!!!—essentially a progressive post-bop session with piano and a direct link to bebop alto sax master Charlie Parker—The Shape of Jazz to Come stakes out wholly new territory on gems like “Focus on Sanity,” “Peace,” “Congeniality” and especially on his mournful, timeless classic “Lonely Woman,” which Lou Reed once called “the greatest melody anywhere.”
With that liberating, watershed album and his two subsequent releases in 1960—Change of the Century and This Is Our Music—the iconoclastic player-composer-theorist would usher in a new movement in jazz that broke free from the rigid confines of bebop while emphasizing highly expressive, soaring melodies. The movement would coalesce with Coleman’s provocative 1961 release, Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation.
If he had ceased recording at that moment in history, the visionary composer and unothodox improviser would have secured a place for himself in the pantheon of jazz. But he continued on a restlessly creative path, courting new muses and concocting new modes of expression over the course of six decades, right up until his passing on June 11 at age 85.
Coleman’s influence on generations of musicians cannot be overestimated. His harmolodic theory, whereby harmony, movement of sound and melody all share the same value, had a profound affect on downtown renegade composers like John Zorn, Bobby Previte and John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards along with alto saxophonist-composers Henry Threadgill and Arthur Blythe, bassist-producer Bill Laswell and his band Material as well as M-Base founders and fellow alto saxophonists Greg Osby and Steve Coleman, guitarists James “Blood” Ulmer, Bern Nix, Kenny Wessel and Pat Metheny, bassists Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Al MacDowell, Melvin Gibbs and Chris Walker, drummers Ronald Shannon Jackson, Calvin Weston and his own son, Denardo Coleman, who made his recording debut at the age of 10 on 1966’s The Empty Foxhole.
A recipient of a 1984 NEA Jazz Masters fellowship, a 1994 MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called Genius Grant) and a Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2007 as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award that same year, Coleman was a soft-spoken, beloved figure whose commitment to uncompromising expression never wavered over his long and illustrious career. In a gala 84th birthday celebration held last summer at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Bandshell, organized by Ornette’s son, drummer Denardo Coleman, a wide variety of artists came to pay tribute to their hero, including Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Patti Smith, Bill Laswell, John Zorn and Laurie Anderson, guitarists Nels Cline and Thurston Moore, tap dancer extraordinaire Savion Glover and a phalanx of saxophonists including Joe Lovano, David Murray, Branford Marsalis and Ravi Coltrane. While appearing somewhat frail, the jazz icon performed while seated on a chair on stage, and he delivered these poignant words to the audience in what was one of his final public performances: “It’s so beautiful to see so many beautiful people who know what life is, who know how to get together and help each other. It’s good to be alive while we’re alive. The only thing we have to do is to be alive. So do what you want to do so that we can all have something to enjoy.”
Born in Fort Worth, Texas on March 9, 1930, Coleman started out on tenor sax and began playing in R&B and bebop bands before switching to alto, which became his main instrument after relocating to Los Angeles in 1954. While his iconoclastic approach to his instrument was off-putting to many musicians at the time, Coleman found an inner circle of kindred spirits in pianist Paul Bley, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, with whom he began forging a new collective improv vernacular in their early experiments at the Hillcrest Club.
After moving to New York in November, 1959, Coleman gained notoriety from a 10-week residency at the Five Spot with his quartet of Cherry, Haden and Higgins. For a second four-month residency at the Five Spot in 1960, Blackwell replaced Higgins on drums. Three important Coleman recordings released that pivotal year—his double quartet project Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation and two potent quartet recordings, Change of the Century and This Is Our Music—helped liberate jazz from the harmonic maze of bebop. His trio from 1965‘s At the Golden Circle Stockholm, featuring bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett, continued to push the envelope. Two acclaimed recordings released at the end of that decade—1968’s New York is Now and Love Call featuring the alto saxophonist doubling on trumpet alongside tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones—were his final outings on the Blue Note label.
In 1971, Coleman expanded his palette on his Columbia Records debut, Science Fiction, which included provocative multi-layered piece for quartet and 11-piece ensemble. Listening to potent, fully-realized tunes like “Civilization Day” and the trippy “What Reason Could I Give” and “All My Life” with Indian vocalist Asha Puthli, it’s not a stretch to sat that this album stands as Ornette’s Axis: Bold As Love. The following year, Coleman flew to London to record Skies in America, an ambitious attempt at combining classical music and free jazz, consisting of one long Coleman composition performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
With 1977‘s mesmerizing Dancing in Your Head, featuring the Master Musicians of Jajouka and introducing Coleman’s electric Prime Time band, he began courting a new muse that later coalesced with the 1982 groove-oriented free jazz manifesto Of Human Feelings, fueled by the dynamic electric bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma. Other noteworthy recordings of the decade included Coleman’s collaboration with guitarist Pat Metheny on 1986’s Song X, and 1988’s Prime Time release Virgin Beauty, which featured a guest appearance by Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. The ‘90s were marked by typically provocative statements in 1995’s Tone Dialing and 1996’s simultaneous releases, Sound Museum: Hidden Man and Sound Museum: Three Women. Coleman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Sound Grammar was recorded live in Ludwigshafen, Germany on October 14, 2005 with his working quartet of son Denardo Coleman on drums and the two-bass tandem of Anthony Falanga and Greg Cohen. And throughout it all, no matter how far ‘out’ Ornette took it, that plaintive alto sax cry and deep blue Texas feel remained at the heart of his soaring improvisations, from “Ramblin’,” “Turnaround” and “Blues Connotation” to the swaggering “Broadway Blues,” the keening “Kathelin Gray” and the haunting “Lonely Woman,” the latter a regular encore number in Ornette’s concerts over the past 30 years.
My own personal memories of seeing Coleman in concert begin with a Prime Time gig at the Ritz in New York City, circa 1981. This was at a particularly adventurous time on the NYC music scene, where No-Wave bands like Arto Lindsay’s DNA, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Lydia Lunch and Mars were tuned into what Ornette was doing, along with punk-funk outfits of the day like James Chance & The Contortions, James White & The Blacks and Defunkt. I had already been well acquainted with Coleman’s pivotal 1977 recording Dancing in Your Head, which I regarded as crazy and mesmerizing, like an LSD-inspired jam session in Morocco. Coleman’s Body Meta was the next step in the development of Prime Time and Of Human Feelings was widely regarded at the group’s most infectious studio outing. Coleman’s 1978 collaboration with disciple James Blood Ulmer on the guitarist’s wah-wah-fueled Tales of Captain Black was equally noteworthy for conjuring up fantasies of Eric Dolphy jamming with Jimi Hendrix.
I witnessed Ornette in concert maybe two dozen times since that initial exposure at The Ritz (a joyous night that had the packed house dancing frantically to the thick groove-oriented music like denizens of an avant garde disco party). There was a memorable gig in 1990 down in New Orleans with Ornette presiding over a sprawling outfit featuring guitarists Kenny Wessell and Chris Rosenberg, keyboardist Dave Bryant, bassist Al MacDowell, Indian tabla master Badal Roy and drummer Denardo Coleman; a gala reunion in 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall in New York with his The Shape of Jazz to Come bandmates Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden and with trumpeter Wallace Roney filling in for the late Don Cherry; a glorious three-bass gig in 2007 at the gaudy Palau de Musica in Barcelona with Anthony Falanga, Al MacDowell and Charnett Moffett; and there was the Sonny Rollins 80th birthday gala in 2010 at NYC’s Beacon Theatre, where Ornette made a surprise entrance from the wings with his alto sax in the middle of “Sonnymoon for Two” (documented on Rollins’ 2011 album, Road Shows, Vol. 2). So many memorable performances over the years. The most intimate one that I witnessed occurred at his Harmolodic Studios on 125th Street in Harlem, where Ornette jammed with classical bassist Falanga and drummer son Denardo at an open house for the recording studio. I stood a foot or so in front of Ornette’s horn that night and felt the genius issuing forth.
I remember once sitting directly behind Coleman in the audience for a performance of one of his string quartet works at Columbia University’s Miller Theater. An inveterate clothes horse known for wearing audaciously-colored suits that often resembled Jackson Pollack paintings, he was going with the winged-birds-flying-on-blue-background suit on this particular night. At intermission as we both shuffled through our respective rows heading to the lobby, I noticed that he had on matching shoes. “Ornette! I love the shoes,” I said to him as we came to the end of our aisles. He looked me in the eyes and said with a cheshire cat grin, “It’s all show biz, baby!”
Coleman leaves behind a massive discography that will continue to be dissected by music students and appreciated by open-eared jazz fans all over the world. His ability to stake out his own renegade path and maintain it through single-minded determination and the courage of his own convictions stands as part of his rich, timeless legacy.