Ornette Coleman, Saxophonist Who Rewrote the Language of Jazz, Dies at 85
By BEN RATLIFFJUNE 11, 2015
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 in Manhattan. He was 85.
The cause was cardiac arrest, a family representative said.
Mr. Coleman widened the options in jazz and helped change its course. Partly through his example in the late Ornette Coleman performing at the Village Vanguard in 1961.CreditSam Falk/The New York Times Continue reading the main storyShare This PageEmailShareTweetPinSaveMoreContinue reading the main storyAdvertisementContinue reading the main story1950s and early ’60s, jazz became less beholden to the rules of harmony and rhythm while gaining more distance from the American songbook repertoire.
His own music, then and later, embodied a new type of folk song: providing deceptively simple melodies for small groups with an intuitive, collective musical 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 personal answer to his fellow alto saxophonist and innovator Charlie Parker — lay right
inside the jazz tradition, generating a handful of standards for 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 more voluble and theoretical than John Coltrane, the other great pathbreaker of that jazz era. He was a kind of musician-philosopher, whose interests reached well beyond jazz. He was seen as a native avant-gardist, personifying the American independent will as much as any artist of the last century.
Slight, Southern and soft-spoken, Mr. Coleman became a visible part of New York City’s cultural life, often attending parties in bright silk suits. He could talk in sometimes baffling language about harmony and ontology, but his utterances could also be disarming in their freshness and clarity.
If his words were sometimes oblique, his music was usually not. Very few listeners today would fail to understand the appeal of his early songs like “Una Muy Bonita” (bright, bouncy) and “Lonely Woman” (tragic, flamencoesque). His run of records for the Atlantic label near the beginning of his career — especially “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” “Change of the Century” and “This Is Our Music” — pushed through an initial wall of skepticism and even ridicule to be recognized as some of the greatest albums in jazz history.
His composing voice and his sense of band interplay were intact by 1959, when he caught the ear of almost every important jazz musician. He wrote short melody sketches, nearly always in a major key, that could sound like old children’s songs or, 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 a single organism with multiple hearts.
Denard Ornette Coleman was born in Fort Worth on March 9, 1930, and lived in a house near railroad tracks. According to various sources, his father, Randolph, who died when Ornette was 7, was a construction worker and a cook; 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, a veritable seedbed of modern American jazz. Three of his future bandmates — the saxophonist Dewey Redman and the drummers Charles Moffett and Ronald Shannon Jackson — were graduates, as were the saxophonists King Curtis, Prince Lasha and Julius Hemphill; the clarinetist John Carter; and Red Connor, a bebop tenor saxophonist who, Mr. Coleman 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 was complicated. When he was learning to play the saxophone — at first using an alto saxophone his mother had given him when he was about 14 — he did not yet understand that because of transposition between instruments, a C in the piano’s “concert key” was an A on his instrument. When he learned the truth, he said, he developed a lifelong suspicion of the rules of Western harmony and musical notation.
In essence, Mr. Coleman believed that all people had their own tonal centers. He often used the word “unison” — though not always in its more common musical-theory sense — to describe 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 this as “Do,” the start of anyone singing or playing a “do-re-mi” major-scale sequence. In the same conversation, he said he had 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 imaginative phrasing.
In 1949, Mr. Coleman 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 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 afterward, in 1953, he moved to Los Angeles 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 an 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 who also helped define it. They included the trumpeters Mr. Cherry and Bobby Bradford, the drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, and the bassist Charlie Haden
While his early albums were met with skepticism and at times ridicule, they were ultimately considered to be some of the greatest in jazz history. Mr. Coleman’s “Sound Grammar,” right, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for music.
These musicians were the exceptions; during his Los Angeles period, many wanted nothing to do with Mr. Coleman, a longhaired Jehovah’s Witness dressed in clothes made by his wife. He “looked like some kind of black Christ figure,” Mr. Cherry said, “but no Christ anybody had ever seen before.”
Mr. Coleman made his first album, “Something Else!!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman,” in 1958 for the Contemporary Records label. In a six-week run at the Hillcrest Club in late 1958 with a quintet — it included Mr. Higgins on drums as well as the pianist Paul Bley — Mr. Haden’s style quickly reoriented itself around the bandleader.
No recording of Mr. Coleman’s 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, Mr. Coleman 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, 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. The Ornette Coleman Quartet — with Mr. Cherry, Mr. Haden and Mr. Higgins — then recorded six numbers for Atlantic in May 1959. (John Lewis, the pianist for the Modern Jazz Quartet, had glowingly recommended Mr. Coleman to Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic Records.)
This session was released as “The Shape of Jazz to Come.” The record’s swing and harmonic freedom, its intuitive communication between Mr. Coleman and Mr. Cherry, and its ease with nonstandard ways of playing jazz made it a classic. But it was not released before other events had 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. In concerts and workshops, Mr. Coleman fascinated some teaching musicians there and alienated others. On hearing him at Lenox, the critic Martin Williams wrote, “I believe that what Ornette Coleman is playing will affect the whole character of jazz music profoundly and pervasively.”
Then, with his quartet, in November 1959 Mr. Coleman hit the Five Spot Café in Manhattan, his first New York gig. A two-week engagement stretched to two and a half months, and suddenly it became fashionable for journalists to ask established jazz musicians what they thought of Mr. Coleman’s jolting music.
Many said he was unformed but promising. John S. Wilson, of The New York Times, heard Mr. Coleman at the Five Spot and wrote a few months later that he had initially found his playing “shrill, meandering, and pointlessly repetitious” — although by that time Mr. Wilson had 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 soloed together harmoniously yet loosely, sometimes clashing and sometimes flying together. Mr. Haden, the bassist, 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. (Mr. Coleman would coin a term for the music’s guiding principles: “harmolodics,” a contraction of harmony, movement and melody.)
In under two years the group made enough music for nine records with Atlantic, including “Free Jazz,” using a “double quartet” of four musicians in each audio channel. It was not quite “free jazz,” though. Despite the great harmonic mobility among 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 force that even Coltrane said in 1961 that the 12 minutes he had spent on stage with Coleman amounted to “the most intense moment of my life.”
But Mr. Coleman’s group was starting to rupture. Mr. Coleman sought more control of his music and insisted on better pay, reducing his bookings to a dribble. Mr. Haden was hospitalized for heroin addiction. Mr. Cherry, needing work, joined Sonny Rollins.
In a 2009 appearance at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, Mr. Coleman, left, on alto sax, with Al MacDowell. His final public performance was five years later. CreditHiroyuki Ito for The New York Times
Prolific and Lauded
In 1962 Mr. Coleman rented the Town Hall, the New York performance space, to play with a new trio, featuring 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, though a more dissonant and self-consciously European-modernist body of work. He retreated from performance and separated himself from New York’s emerging free-jazz scene.
When he reappeared, in 1965, 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. Rooks rejected the music, for jazz quartet and orchestra, though it was eventually released by Columbia Records.
In 1966 Mr. Coleman made the album “The Empty Foxhole,” with Mr. Haden on bass and Mr. Coleman’s son, Denardo, only 10 years old, on drums. And in the late ’60s Mr. Coleman bought an industrial building in SoHo, on Prince Street, beginning his do-it-yourself life in earnest. He called the building Artists House and produced concerts, and 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.”
Mr. Coleman soon began writing a concerto grosso called “Skies of America,” which he 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, displaying the Jajouka reed players’ untempered approach, appeared on Mr. Coleman’s album “Dancing in Your Head,” released in 1977. The collaboration confirmed his belief that the “concert key” system of Western tonality was misguided.
“Dancing in Your Head” marked the beginning of Prime Time, Mr. Coleman’s first electric band — it had two guitarists — and a new chapter in his music. Loud, jagged and densely woven, the music took few cues from rock, but it nonetheless had an influence on what would be called post-punk, the sound of late-1970s 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. He appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in 1979. 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.
In 1985 Mr. Coleman 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 Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead on board at times as a third guitarist. In 1991, Mr. Coleman played on Howard Shore’s soundtrack to the film “Naked Lunch,” based on the novel by William S. Burroughs.
Lincoln Center became his stage in the summer of 1997, when he played four nights presenting his 1970s concerto grosso, “Skies of America,” conducted by Kurt Masur, as well as 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.
By this time Mr. Coleman represented the avant-garde establishment. He was awarded a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master fellowship in 1984 and made a MacArthur Foundation fellow in 1994. He had reached old-master status on the jazz-performance circuit and gave well-attended concerts — again with a white saxophone, but metal, not plastic.
Mr. Coleman formed a new quartet in 2004, with two bassists and Denardo Coleman on drums, and started the Sound Grammar record label. 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 and was taken to a hospital. His final public performance was at Prospect Park in Brooklyn in June 2014, as part of a tribute to him organized by his son.
“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.”