Wednesday, March 9, 2011


"It was when I found out I could make mistakes that I knew I was on to something."

--Ornette Coleman
"Jazz, rock, pop, blues, gospel, and classical are all yesterday's titles. I'm playing the music of today..."
--Ornette Coleman
"Play the music, not the background"
--Ornette Coleman
"Sound is to people what the sun is to light"
--Ornette Coleman

"You don't have to worry about being a number one, number two, or number three. Numbers don't have anything to do with placement. Numbers only have something to do with repetition."
--Ornette Coleman


It is impossible to overstate the monumental significance of the astonishing musical art and vision of the consummate musician/composer/arranger/conductor/multi-instrumentalist/philosopher/prophet Ornette Coleman (b. March 9, 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas). For over 50 years (!) Ornette has been a major innovator in, and creative influence on, the rich global history of improvisational and structured ensemble music alike. A grandmaster of the myriad forms, genres, and expressive/conceptual traditions and strutural legacies of Jazz, Blues, R & B, Funk, 'classical' 'Pop', and spiritual musics Coleman has left an indelible mark on the art world generally through not only his many extraordinary recordings and live performances throughout the U.S., Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Pacific islands but through his electrifying and highly original creative collaborations with singers, dancers, painters, poets, visual artists (film and painting), architects, scientists, actors, martial artists, and playwrights. In celebration of the 81st birthday of this truly great artist and amazing human being what follows are a series of writings and commentary by and about Ornette by a number of different sources including critics, fellow artists, and historians. I have also contributed some of my own writing on and about Ornette and his music over the years. ENJOY...



Why We Love Ornette Coleman
September 24, 2010

Rarely does one person change the way we listen to music, but such a man is ORNETTE COLEMAN. Since the late 1950s, when he burst on the New York jazz scene with his legendary engagement at the Five Spot, Coleman has been teaching the world new ways of listening to music. His revolutionary musical ideas have been controversial, but today his enormous contribution to modern music is recognized throughout the world.

Coleman was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1930 and taught himself to play the saxophone and read music by the age of 14. One year later he formed his own band. Finding a troublesome existence in Fort Worth surrounded by racial segregation and poverty, he took to the road at age 19. During the 1950s while in Los Angeles, Ornette's musical ideas were too controversial to find frequent public performance possibilities. He did, however, find a core of musicians who took to his musical concepts: trumpeters Don Cherry and Bobby Bradford, drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, and bassist Charlie Haden.

In 1958, with the release of his debut album SOMETHING ELSE, it was immediately clear that Coleman had ushered in a new era in jazz history. This music, freed from the prevailing conventions of harmony, rhythm, and melody, often called 'free jazz' transformed the art form. Coleman called this concept Harmolodics. From 1959 through the rest of the 60s, Coleman released more than fifteen critically acclaimed albums on the Atlantic and Blue Note labels, most of which are now recognized as jazz classics. He also began writing string quartets, woodwind quintets, and symphonies based on Harmolodic theory.

In the early 1970s, Ornette traveled throughout Morocco and Nigeria playing with local musicians and interpreting the melodic and rhythmic complexities of their music into this Harmolodic approach. In 1975, seeking the fuller sound of an orchestra for his writing, Coleman constructed a new ensemble entitled Prime Time, which included the doubling of guitars, drums, and bass. Combining elements of ethnic and danceable sounds, this approach is now identified with a full genre of music and musicians. In the next decade, more surprises included trend-setting albums such as SONG X with guitarist Pat Methany, and Virgin Beauty featuring Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia.

The 1990s included other large works such as the premier of Architecture in Motion, Ornette's first Harmolodic ballet, as well as work on the soundtracks for the films "Naked Lunch" and "Philadelphia." With the dawning of the Harmolodic record label under Polygram, Ornette became heavily involved in new recordings including Tone Dialing, Sound Museum, and Colors. In 1997, New York City's Lincoln Center Festival featured the music and the various guises of Ornette over four days, including performances with the New York Philharmonic and Kurt Masur of his symphonic work, Skies of America.

There has been a tremendous outpouring of recognition bestowed upon Coleman for his work, including honorary degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, California Institute of the Arts, and Boston Conservatory, and an honorary doctorate from the New School for Social Research. In 1994, he was a recipient of the distinguished MacArthur Fellowship award, and in 1997, was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2001, Ornette Coleman received the prestigious Praemium Imperiale award from the Japanese government. Ornette won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 2006 album, SOUND GRAMMAR, the first jazz work to be bestowed with the honor. In 2008, he was inducted into the Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame. The NEJHF honors legendary musicians whose singular dedication and outstanding contribution to this art shaped the landscape of jazz.

by Patrick Jarenwattananon (for
September 24, 2010

This past weekend, The Jazz Gallery in New York hosted a three-day festival called Celebrating Ornette Coleman. As tributes to the jazz legend go, this one was special.

For one, the lineup was packed with stars and musician's musicians: Mark Turner, Joe Lovano, Nasheet Waits, Johnathan Blake, Kevin Hays and Joel Frahm were leading bands with such sidepersons as Matt Wilson, Seamus Blake, Marcus Gilmore, Stanley Cowell, Avishai Cohen, Joey Baron and more. (The collaborative trio of Vijay Iyer, Matana Roberts and Gerald Cleaver also performed.) For another, The Jazz Gallery was a small room usually committed to the up-and-coming generation of artists — last weekend, they were packed with artists who often command theaters and weeklong club runs. And as a third, the shows were presented by Jimmy Katz, the jazz portrait photographer and audio engineer. With his wife, Katz raised all the funds; he also recorded the shows, and the musicians got their masters. There were no guidelines for how each group played their tributes.

In advance of the performance, I reached out to a number of the artists that performed last weekend for their brief thoughts on Ornette Coleman. Here's what I got back.

What makes Ornette Coleman special for you? Leave us a comment.

Mark Turner, saxophones: Master Ornette Coleman knows where he comes from, where he is and where he wants to go.

Joe Martin, bass: As a bassist, Ornette's music enlightens how crucial, beautiful, and dramatic the relationship between a bass line and melody is. (Of course melody and bass line counterpoint have always existed, but for me hearing Ornette's music showed me that even without a specific harmony, this said relationship is even more pronounced, perhaps essential.)

Johnathan Blake, drums: Ornette's fearlessness and honesty is a constant inspiration to me. I've always loved the humor that he puts inside his music.

Joel Frahm, saxophone: For me, Ornette is a great example of the power of flow in music; when I listen to him, I feel like he's never out to prove something to anybody. It's more like discovery and reaction. For me, he's hard to talk or write about without feeling like words are completely useless to describe him.

Matt Wilson, drums: Mr. Coleman personifies courage. He persevered through intense scrutiny and criticism to convey his sonic message. That alone is a reason to celebrate this American master.

Did you know that Ornette Coleman once commented at a rehearsal, "Let's find the right temperature for this tune"? Is that hip or what? BIG love to Maestro Coleman!

Matana Roberts, saxophone: Ornette Coleman is a saxophonist in a class all by himself. He stands for what making interesting art is all about — having a voice all of one's own, but having a creative spirit that is wide open, selflessly nuturing and welcoming to collectivity and celebration of the human experience

Seamus Blake, saxophone: Ornette has profoundly touched and influenced every important jazz musician since he first recorded in 1958. The genius and stylings of Wayne Shorter, Joe Lovano, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and John Scofield as well as many, many more greats owe a great deal to Mr Coleman. He is without a doubt as crucial a figure in jazz as Charlie Parker.

Nasheet Waits, drums: What Ornette Coleman represents to me is a fierce dedication to being yourself. He listens to the inner voice whose source is within and beyond.

Vijay Iyer, piano: Ornette Coleman's music combines conceptual innovation, rigorous detail, and profound emotional resonance. He completely changed the music we know and love, and yet his ongoing impact extends well beyond the "jazz" world, into punk rock, American literature, cinema and contemporary art. To me, the best way to pay tribute to Mr. Coleman is to follow his lead — i.e., to be radically, audaciously yourself. (09/28/10)


Mark Kostabi (MK3) wrote: Very well said Vijay Iyer. I'd also like to add that Ornette often leaves the door open. But sometimes it's closed and he pretends to lose the key. Then suddenly someone finds it buried in the dirt of a planter.

Taylor Atkins (etatkins) wrote: This is an easy question for me to answer. Ornette Coleman's music is the most joyful and playful in the idiom, right on up there with Louis Armstrong's. I don't mean to say he cannot or does not express pathos or melancholy. But most of the time when I hear that horn of his, he seems to be romping with such abandon, just having a ball exploring the universe around him, playing with sounds. It is so hard to see why anyone back when he first came out would say he sounded "angry" or that he had no regard for the music's traditions. Maybe the "angry" tag was more intended for Cecil Taylor or Albert Ayler, but Ornette? Naw. Pure, infectious joy. Much love to you, Mr. Coleman. Much love.

National Public Radio

Ornette Coleman Artist Page

Ornette taught himself how to play the tenor saxophone at the age of fourteen. Coleman found the poverty and racism surrounding him to be too much too bear and hit the road at age nineteen. Coleman first traveled around with Silas Green from a New Orleans variety show and with various rhythm and blues bands. After being assaulted by a white mob after a live show his saxophone was destroyed and he then switched to alto and headed west to Los Angeles with Pee Wee Crayton's band. In Los Angeles Ornette began pursued his own musical visions much more so and became quickly controversial and had difficulties finding places to play. He was however able to find a core group of musicians to play with that included Don Cherry, Bobby Bradford, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden.

Coleman made Jazz history in 1958 with his album 'Something Else' with Don Cherry, Higgins, Don Payne and Walter Norris. Ornette's playing was not from the mainstream perspective of harmony, rhythm and melody and approached music with total freedom. All of the musical ideas incorporated in Coleman's music were not new per say because they did all exist in different cultures around the world but these ideas were newer to Western/European music and certainly Jazz in America at that time and Coleman called the concept Harmolodics. Through the 1960s Coleman recorded over fifteen albums on Atlantic and Blue Note and most are classics including 'Tomorrow Is the Question!', 'The Shape of Jazz to Come', 'Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation' and many more.

In the 1970s Ornette traveled the world including Morocco and Nigeria and sought out local musicians in these places to play with and tried to soak up as much of their music as possible. Coleman took the differences in melodic and rhythmic approach from these musicians and constructed a new band called Prime Time with two guitars, two bass players and two drummers in order to capture and incorporate these new sounds. Ornette continued working through these new concepts into the 1980s and recorded such 'avantgarde' and popular albums 'Song X' with Pat Methany and 'Virgin Beauty' with Jerry Garcia. In the '90s Coleman created Architecture in Motion, which is a ballet based on his Harmolodic concept and worked on soundtracks for films including Naked Lunch and Philadelphia. He also released three major albums during the decade 'Tone Dialing', 'Sound Museum' and 'Colors'.

Ornette Coleman continues to perform to this day though not too often and any chance to see him must be taken advantage of. Coleman has received many awards including a honorary doctorate from New School University, a MacArthur Fellowship award, and the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his album 'Sound Grammar' in 2007

(For Ornette Coleman)

Ornette sings the breakneck passion
song while resting in the lilting liquid light
that becomes him
His sound a heady rhythmic
nomenclature on starry melodic nights
His horn erupts into turquoise flames
A turning toward Terror is not his style though he
casually conjures tempestuous histories
soaring over smokey black earths
Bluesy constellations emerging from our most hidden

Poem by Kofi Natambu
(from: The Melody Never Stops, Past Tents Press, 1991)

The Blues in 4-D
by Kofi Natambu
Detroit Metro Times
June, 1982

For over 20 years now, Ornette Coleman has been a major innovative force in world music. During this period Coleman has been able to consistently change the direction of his music and still greatly influence other musicians. Ornette has been able to do this in spite of the fact that his massive achievements have often been misunderstood, vilified, ridiculed or patronized by dense white American “music critics.” Through it all, Coleman has prevailed because his artistic vision is so clear, strong and compelling that no opposition could stop him. Like most “great masters,” Ornette has been forced to fight for his art.

That is why Coleman’s latest recording, Of Human Feelings, is such an inspiring triumph. In this record we get an intimate look at a brilliant musician/composer organizing the varied elements of his music into a multi-tonal mosaic of great power, humor, color, wit, sensuality, compassion and tenderness. The fact that Ornette has once again managed to create such intelligent and passionate music using only the most venerable and fundamental of all African-American “forms” (i.e. the Blues) as an aesthetic focus is cause for celebration in a culture that worships gimmicks and cant over vision and heart. It is also an indication that like all truly “great artists,” Ornette recognizes and uses the eternal value(s) of simplicity. Of course, as any working artist can tell you, this is one of the most difficult things to do. Luckily for the rest of us, this is Coleman’s strength.

In this record, Ornette and his now six-year-old Prime Time Band never lose sight of the essential conceptual and spiritual aspects of Ornette’s musical philosophy: “Play the music, not the background.” In the eight pieces on this recording, as in all of Ornette’s music, the emphasis is never on virtuoso pyrotechnics for their own sake, or in empty stylistic phrase mongering. In every composition there is a synergy of thought and feeling that communicates instantly. There is always a dynamic unity of structure and execution that is performed with spirit and expressive animation. Coleman’s intricate and functional knowledge of black creative music tradi tions allows him to do this in a deceptively easy manner. The music literally pours out of this ensemble in strains of melody and rhythm that sums up the last 100 years of creative development in Afro-American music.

This awesome command is augmented, in Coleman’s case, with a very strong emotional affinity for the most ancient and basic “folk musics” developed by black people in the New World. Thus, in this recording there are rocking riff figures, field hollers, intensely lyrical worksongs, roaring call-and-response counterpoint, wailing melodic laments and exultations, wry little stompdown ditties and jumptime rent part be-bopping. There are also multi-rhythmic chants, sound clusters, tonal density and instrumental speechmaking. This colorful tapes try is held together by Coleman’s famous Harmolodic method, a theoretical construct that Ornette devised in the early 1970s to “allow all instruments in the band the equal opportunity to lead at any time...” This means that all members of the band can play melodic lines in any key at any time, because structurally the tempo, the rhythm and the harmonics are all equal in terms of what they can express. There is a constant modulation of tonality and rhythms as a result. In this liberated environmental setting the tonal “jumping-off point” is always the Blues, and I mean all kinds of Blues!

Ornette plays every conceivable Blues ever invented and a few that he introduced to the world. In every sound, gesture, cadence and juxtaposition. Coleman reminds us that without the Blues there would be no “jazz,” no “rock,” no “pop,” no “funk,” no “punk.” In short, no American vernacular music, just bland one-dimensional imitations of European, Asian, Latin and African musics. It is a humbling and sobering thought that makes us reflect even as we dance like mad to the throbbing, driving rhythms. Strangely, despite the echoes of Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix (among many others) throughout this music, the overall effect is unlike any Blues you have heard before. This is because of what Coleman does with the form in contemporary terms.

Meanwhile, Ornette rides the swelling and descending crest of these tidal waves of melody and sound through keening, darting and singing improvisations that convey a very wise and ancient message. This is the eternal blues message of joyful affirmation in the face of adversity and despair. A “heroism” based on hard-won experience and not media posturing. Whether shouting, screaming, moaning, laughing, crying or sighing, the music in Of Human Feelings never fails to express this message that lifts you higher and makes you dance no matter what “the problem.” The energy derived from the spirit of this recording is the “solution” to our problems. In fact, the title of one of Ornette’s tunes in this recording is “What is the Name of that Song?” I betcha Reagan doesn’t know. I hope we do.

Ornette Coleman's 'Sound Grammar' first jazz work awarded Pulitzer Prize 

Associated Press
April 24, 2007

NEW YORK -- Ornette Coleman won the Pulitzer Prize for music on Monday for his 2006 album, "Sound Grammar," the first jazz work to be bestowed with the honor.

The alto saxophonist and visionary who led the free jazz movement in the 1950s and 1960s, won the Pulitzer at age 77 for his first live recording in 20 years. The only other jazz artist to win a Pulitzer is Wynton Marsalis, who won in 1997 for his classical piece, "Blood on the Fields."

The Pulitzer Prize for music, an award founded in 1943, has always focused on classical music. Legendary jazz composers Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk were honored only with posthumous citations in 1999 and 2006, respectively. In 2004, Pulitzer administrators decided to expand the criteria for the music prize, encouraging a broader range of music that included jazz, musical theater and movies.

Coleman, who grew up poor in a largely segregated Fort Worth, Texas, didn't first believe his cousin when he told Coleman that he had won the Pulitzer. He spoke by phone to The Associated Press from his New York City home minutes after hearing the news, and reflected on his long, unlikely journey.

"I'm grateful to know that America is really a fantastic country," said the jazz legend, recalling when he first asked his mother for a saxophone. "And here I am."

What began for Coleman as a fascination for the bebop of Charlie Parker, led him on a path to discover -- through music -- what he calls "the culture of life and intelligence."

 On "Sound Grammar," which was recorded at a 2005 concert in Ludwigshafen, Germany, Coleman also plays trumpet and violin. He was awarded a Grammy lifetime achievement award in February.

"Of all the languages that human beings are speaking on the planet, it's some form of grammar," Coleman said of his album. "For me, playing music is analyzing grammar." Though Coleman can speak of large, heady ideas in a way not dissimilar from his often conceptual music, he said he has never wanted to be inaccessible. 

"I've been doing what I think I'm trying to achieve ever since I was teenager and I was only doing it because of the quality of human beings," Coleman said. "I've never really thought about being smart; I've only really thought about being good." 

Some members of the Pulitzer board such as Jay Harris, a professor at the University of Southern California, have said the Pulitzers have "effectively excluded some of the best of American music" by concentrating fully on classical works. Coleman's win suggests that may be changing.

When asked whether he hopes more jazz musicians will follow him in winning Pulitzers, Coleman replied, "I would like to help them if I could." 

On the Net:

Ornette in 1959/1960:

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Ornette in 1971:

Ornette in 1971 (Ornette Coleman's composition "Science Fiction" featuring a poem by David Henderson)

Ornette in 1993:

Ornette in 2007

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Ornette in 1987:

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Ornette in 1959:

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Ornett in 2009:

Ornette in 2007:

Ornette in 1978: