Few jazz musicians have been honored and reviled, celebrated and cursed more widely or more vigorously than Ornette Coleman, who died at 1 a.m. Thursday in Manhattan at age 85.
An innovator to the core, the composer and multi-instrumentalist redefined the meaning and possibilities of jazz starting in the mid-1950s and continuing through the rest of his career. Though some jazz giants, many critics and large swaths of the listening public attacked Coleman’s work and character, none could deny that he not only changed the course of the music but opened it up to possibilities previously unimagined.
“It’s a great loss,” said pianist Ahmad Jamal, who once similarly faced vituperation for re-imagining the syntax of jazz. “He had a historically wonderful career.”
Said pioneering alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, “Famous people were putting (him) down very vocally.” But Coleman’s music “was new, in a large sense of that word, and very well done.” Observed Chicago saxophonist Ken Vandermark, who won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999, five years after Coleman, “To put it simply, he changed the paradigm for everybody. In retrospect, it looks like a simple breakthrough to free up form and harmony the way he did, by circumventing the need for (chord) changes. ... But we’re still dealing with the repercussions of that development. We’re still talking about what jazz is and isn’t because of what he did.”
In essence, Coleman dispatched with principals of harmony underlying Western music since the days of Johann Sebastian Bach. Instead of structuring a piece of music on a series of chord progressions, or “changes,” Coleman encouraged his band-mates to craft multiple melody lines at once quite outside chordal considerations. This system of composition and improvisation, which Coleman called “harmolodics,” produced exquisite lyric phrases often steeped in the blues, but also harsh dissonances and unpredictable song forms that alienated many.
“It’s like having a million melodies all at once,” Coleman told the Tribune in 2003, speaking in his Manhattan loft. “Yet it’s still a kind of unison.”
By that Coleman meant that the musicians were united not by chord changes but by melodic flow, rhythmic undercurrent, blues sensibility and, of course, the spontaneity of the moment. His most famous composition, “Lonely Woman,” crystallized the lyric urgency of his work. But Coleman faced bitter rebuke for his approach.
In Los Angeles, where he began developing these ideas in earnest in the 1950s, he struggled to find jazz musicians willing even to talk to him about his concepts, let alone try out the new sounds on the bandstand, he said. A few, such as trumpeter Don Cherry and bassist Charlie Haden, were curious.
“Don Cherry told me about this alto player, Ornette Coleman, so I went to hear him, and Ornette takes out this white plastic alto saxophone, and I never had heard anything so beautiful in my life,” Haden told the Tribune in 2002.
“When he walked out of the club, I ran back after him. I just thought he played like some revolutionary angel. So he invited me to come to his home – actually, it was his apartment, a little one-room shack with music on the floor and everywhere.
“And I’ll never forget what he said to me: ‘After we play the intro, listen to me, and we’ll play what we want to play, not what we’re supposed to be playing.’”
The daring music that Coleman was creating with Cherry, Haden, drummer Billy Higgins and others was documented on a series of groundbreaking albums, including “Something Else!!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman” (1958), “The Shape of Jazz to Come” (1959), “Change of the Century” (1959) and “Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation” (1960).
But when Coleman brought his startling new sound to New York in 1959, many resisted. The eminent trumpeter Roy Eldridge said, “I think he’s jiving, baby.” Trumpeter Miles Davis remarked, “If you’re talking psychologically, the man is all screwed up.” And drummer Max Roach heard Coleman play and punched Ornette in the mouth, according to John Litweiler’s biography, “Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life.”
Yet many listeners were intrigued, the freshness of Coleman’s sound and the freedom of his delivery representing an enormous leap forward from the bebop music of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker that had influenced Coleman so deeply. These innovations set the stage for one of the most galvanic musical developments of the 20th century: the emergence in Chicago of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary around the world. “He and (saxophonist) Albert Ayler were early cats pushing that envelope and letting us know it’s possible,” said reedist Mwata Bowden, a longtime AACM member and a former chairman of the collective.
“Ayler and Ornette led to Muhal (Richard Abrams) and Roscoe Mitchell,” added Bowden, citing first-generation AACM artists. “He set up that atmosphere, the whole idea that there’s more to this music.”
Coleman never stopped inventing. In 1962, he studied the musical practices of the Hopi Indians. In the early 1970s, he embraced the “healing powers” of the master musicians of Joujouka, Morocco. His “Skies of America” merged jazz and symphonic music in the early 1970s (reprised brilliantly at Lincoln Center in New York in 1997). His Prime Time band of the late ’70s dove into funk and noise. The “Freedom Symbol” suite he unveiled in 1989 featured a classically tinged 20-piece ensemble (the piece revived dramatically in New York’s Battery Park in 2000).
This enormous body of work sprang from an artist born poor in Ft. Worth, Tex., Coleman teaching himself to play saxophone and other instruments (he also played violin and trumpet effectively). Long unacquainted with the intricacies of key signatures, transpositions and other details of the composer’s art, Coleman invented his own way of building sound, as if unencumbered by certain Western musical traditions dating back centuries.
Eventually, his efforts won him high honors from the music world that long had rejected him, Coleman receiving National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship in 1984, a MacArthur Fellowship in 1994 and a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his album “Sound Grammar.” Chicago heard him periodically, including a luminously beautiful set at the Chicago Jazz Festival in 2008 and a landmark, concert-length performance in Orchestra Hall in 2003. Neither the accolades nor the admonishments that came Coleman’s way seemed to alter his perspectives or his music.
“Oh, man, I’ve had some really terrible things done to me,” said Coleman in the 2003 interview. “At a certain point in my life, I just decided that I would never fight any kind of class, any kind of race, and if someone said, ‘I don’t like you,’ I wouldn’t try to defend myself. “I’m not trying to control, change, dominate, kill or be against anyone, or put somebody above another. I think my position is that I’m no more than a speck of dust in the sand, and I’m trying to avoid being stepped on.”
His music conveyed precisely that equanimity of spirit, in sounds that still reverberate around the world.
A selected Coleman discography:
“The Music of Ornette Coleman: Something Else!!!!” (1958): Coleman’s startling debut features future collaborators Don Cherry and Billy Higgins.
“The Shape of Jazz to Come” (1959): Coleman, Cherry, Higgins and bassist Charlie Haden soar.
“Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation” (1960): The “Free Jazz” title is a misnomer, but the power of the double quartet is unmistakable.
“Change of the Century” (1960): Coleman, Cherry, Haden and Higgins gather tremendous energy.
“New York Is Now” and “Love Call” (1968): Coleman is joined by tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman and John Coltrane alums Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones.
“Dancing In Your Head” (1976): Coleman embraces influences of music from Morocco.
“Tone Dialing” (1995): Thick funk music swirls around Coleman’s alto, violin and trumpet.
“Sound Grammar” (2006): The blues-rich live album that won Coleman a Pulitzer Prize.