Friday, June 12, 2015

ORNETTE COLEMAN (1930-2015): Legendary and Iconic Musician, Composer, Music theorist, Teacher, and Philosopher

Ornette Coleman, Jazz Innovator, Dies at 85
JUNE 11, 2015
New York Times
Ornette Coleman performing at the Village Vanguard in 1961. Credit Sam Falk/The New York Times
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.

Though his early work— a kind of personal answer to his fellow alto saxophonist and innovator Charlie Parker— lay right within jazz — and generated a handful of standards among jazz musicians of the last half-century — 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-colored 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 usually was not so oblique. At best, it could be for everybody. Very few listenerstoday 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 records 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, 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, as well as 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 everybody has his own tonal center, 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 in 1995 to the writer Michael Jarrett; 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 Charlie 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 band’s other saxophonists.

While 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. He is survived by his son, Denardo who played drums with him on and off since the late 1960s, and a grandson.

He also 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.

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 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 label. In a six-week run at the Hillcrest Club in late 1958 with a quintet — his 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 races and flags and plays his own proud blues lines, diatonic runs, and plump, raw, crying notes.

Mr. Coleman made one more record in Los Angeles, “Tomorrow Is the Question,” with 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 Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins—recorded five numbers for Atlantic in May 1959. (John Lewis, pianist of 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 to 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 at 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 influential 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”—a lthough by that time Mr. Wilson had already begun revising his opinion. The trumpeter Roy Eldridge gave him due diligence before forming an opnion. “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 theory book about harmolodics, 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 wasn’t 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.

His 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 Town Hall to play with his new trio, with David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on drums, and on one piece, 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, 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; his music was rejected by the 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 12, 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 pre-fashionable 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 including Dewey Redman on tenor saxophone; among their 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 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 1975 album “Dancing in Your Head,”
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, 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 Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia 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 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his album “Sound Grammar.” That same year he was given a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award and performed at the rock-centered Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee. To the alarm of the audience, he passed out from heat stroke, recovering at a nearby hospital.

His performing schedule declined in his last five years; 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.”…/legendary-ornette-co…

(For Ornette Coleman)

by Kofi Natambu

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

A Review of 'Of Human Feelings'
Ornette Coleman & Prime Time
Antilles Records 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.


Compositions by Ornette Coleman:
A1 Sleep Talk
A2 Jump Street
A3 Him And Her
A4 Air Ship
B1 What Is The Name Of That Song?
B2 Job Mob
B3 Love Words
B4 Times Square

Alto Saxophone – Ornette Coleman
Bass Guitar – Jamaaladeen Tacuma
Drums – Calvin Weston, Ornette Denardo Coleman
Guitar – Bern Nix, Charlie Ellerbee

Cover Painting – Susan Bernstein
Recorded on April 25, 1979, N.Y.C.—Released in 1982

June 11, 2015
Ornette Coleman’s Revolution
by Richard Brody
The New Yorker

One of the main reasons why 1959 is often cited as a watershed year in modern art is the arrival of Ornette Coleman to New York; the release of his first major-label record, “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” in October of that year; and the beginning of his epochal gig at the Five Spot, in November. The radical nature of his work was in its newfound, hard-won simplicity. Coleman, who died on Thursday, was born in Texas, in 1930, and got started playing rhythm and blues. But his advanced ideas—and his idiosyncratic habits—got him into trouble, and he continued having trouble (including insults from critics and from such musicians as Miles Davis and Roy Eldridge) even when he became a seeming overnight success in late 1959 and early 1960, after ten years of struggle.

Coleman was a musician who always thought of his music in philosophical terms; in Shirley Clarke’s film, “Ornette: Made in America,” from 1985, Coleman discusses some of those ideas in detail; he does so, too, in this conversation with Jacques Derrida, from 1997. But the essence of Coleman’s philosophy connects it to the defining trait of philosophical thought from Socrates onward: the puncturing of shibboleths, the rational devaluation of concepts considered essential, the proof through reason that ideas and categories believed to derive from nature are merely convenient artifices and social markers and can easily be dispensed with. But those ideas and categories are dispensed with by those who cherish their freedom of spirit, and often at the cost of their social position. To expose familiar habits as fusty fabrications is to expose oneself to ridicule, as a weirdo, and to persecution, as a threat to the established order.

The order that Coleman overturned with, seemingly, a blast from his alto saxophone is, in a word, bebop. Not that he didn’t love the music of Charlie Parker. (They narrowly missed playing together at a Los Angeles club in 1951 or 1952.) Coleman said, “I wanted to have the experience of him hearing what I had done, because by the time we met, in 1951 or ’52, I was really into what I did later on my own records.” Coleman’s frequent musical collaborator, the trumpeter Don Cherry, explained what went wrong: “When he got to the club, they wouldn’t allow him in because of his long hair.”

Parker took the harmonic structures of popular songs, and of his own compositions, and complexified them, extending the range of improvisations into exotically chromatic realms. But as far as Parker’s solos may have ranged, he and his fellow musicians kept the structure of the tune in their heads, matching chords to bars and replicating, in chorus after chorus, the underlying musical architecture of the composition. Coleman’s idea was to play the melody. He didn’t get rid of the notion of harmony—he and his musicians created magnificent contrapuntal interweavings—but he got rid of the idea of a fixed series of chords that matched to a fixed series of bars and to particular beats within bars. Coleman composed melodies that had wondrous harmonic implications—and he and his bandmates adopted those implications freely, as the inspiration struck them.

Coleman was from Fort Worth and he grew up hearing and playing the blues. Much of his music was inspired by the blues, and the first thing that strikes a listener, upon hearing the 1959 recording, “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” is that, as radicalism goes, it’s damn catchy. The sobriquet “free jazz” may have been an apt slogan for what Coleman was doing, and it became the title for his 1960 album that was built around collective improvisations by Coleman’s “double quartet” (in practice, it featured individual solos punctuated freely with interjections from three other horn players), but much of what Coleman and his fellow musicians chose to do with their freedom involved irresistible melodic invention and deeply swinging grooves.

Yet to working musicians whose sense of form and craft were deeply ingrained—and whose personal artistry and place in the profession were built on improvising on the harmonies of songs—Coleman, for all his lyrical inventiveness and rhythmic drive, was a threat. Jazz could suddenly dispense with their techniques—and when Coleman became an instant succès de scandale, battle lines and generational lines were drawn.

Just as, at the very same moment, the French New Wave swept away many of the conventions of filmmaking while honoring its greatest artistic traditions, Coleman inaugurated a new era in jazz that rendered it instantly pliable to a generation of musicians whose background differed from that of classic artists. The club scene was withering; local bands were often supplanted by recordings; rock and roll had risen to take the place of jazz-like music as the central popular style; and younger musicians were likelier to have conservatory training. The instant, across-the-board freedom that Coleman heralded and that he put into action opened the door to a panorama of possibilities.

By 1962, he had composed a string quartet, while also playing with a trio that meandered through tempi and rhythms with him in vast organic compositions developed on the wing. His trumpeter, Don Cherry, became one of the early avatars of world music; the bassist in his famous quartet, Charlie Haden, became one of the key figures in a sort of archeologically eclectic classicism; and Coleman’s own music  took visionary turns (as seen in Clarke’s film) that involved technological and sociological experiments, symphony orchestras, international cross-pollination, and, in the nineteen-seventies, plugging in with a band that featured multiple electric guitars and a new theory that he called “harmolodics.” (He spoke to The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, about it in 2000.) Here’s a remarkable early example, from 1978, of its power. It features the guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, one of the avant-funk masters.

But if there is, above all, one core word for Coleman’s achievement, it’s passing from the realm of music—with its social and conventional implications—to the realm of sound. Coleman broke through style and structure to seek sound. He himself had a sound like no other (initially, playing a plastic saxophone). Coleman is instantly recognizable from a single note, and that sound—separated from the theoretical apparatus of music, from the modes of the profession, from the critical categories of jazz—is inseparable from his very being. Coleman’s liberation of jazz was intimate and personal from the start, for listeners and musicians alike.

Richard Brody began writing for The New Yorker in 1999, and has contributed articles about the directors François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Samuel Fuller. He writes about movies in his blog for

Seeing Ornette Coleman


The most radical artistic innovations often seem deceptively simple in retrospect—more a recognition of a universal truth than the discovery of something new. To paint shape and color rather than image. To give as much weight to a word’s sound as to its meaning. To recognize the music inherent in silence.
Ornette Coleman posited that the infinite improvisational possibilities of a melody could thrive outside of a predetermined structure, that musical ideas could flow and expand in the moment as naturally as breath or speech or thought. A simple idea that shook the world of twentieth-century music—a revolutionary idea that sounded like a folk song, lilting with the loving congeniality of a parent singing to a child.

Coleman was always an outsider. While others fixated on the fluid virtuosity and harmonic sophistication of Charlie Parker, Coleman heard the bluesy cry in Parker’s tone and the rhythmic unrest just beneath the surface. He spent his early twenties touring with carnival shows and rhythm-and-blues bands, suffering ridicule (even physical abuse—he was once actually attacked and beaten after a gig) for his unconventional approach. He eventually found his way to Los Angeles, where he worked part-time as an elevator operator and began to find new allies amidst the disdain. With long hair and a beard, long before that look was in fashion, and wearing a heavy overcoat in ninety-degree weather, Coleman scared the trumpeter Don Cherry at their first meeting. But the music drew Cherry in, and soon their symbiotic telepathy recalled Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s. In addition to Cherry, such burgeoning master improvisers as the bassist Charlie Haden and the drummers Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell heard the magic in Coleman’s concept and dedicated themselves to its ensemble realization.

In a jazz industry often obsessed with young lions, Coleman didn’t make his recording début until a month before his twenty-eighth birthday (“Something Else!!!!” on Contemporary Records in 1958). From the beginning of the album, you can recognize his mature conception, even while you hear Coleman and Cherry chafing at the more conventional forms imposed by the pianist and bassist that the label brought in. By the following year, now accompanied by like-minded collaborators of his own choosing, Coleman moved to New York City and began a series of classic recordings for Atlantic Records—including “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” “Change of the Century,” and “This is Our Music”—which lived up to their propitious titles. He also began an extended residency at the Five Spot, in New York City, that solidified his role as the figurehead of the “new music.”

Sporting a white plastic alto saxophone (matched by Don Cherry’s toy-like pocket trumpet), abandoning traditional song form and chord changes, with the microtonal vocal cry of his horn following the unforgettable cadences of his melodies, Coleman became the contentious flash point for arguments over the validity of the avant-garde. Critics were divided, pro and con, five-star reviews against zero stars, no middle ground. Some musicians rallied in Coleman’s defense, others denounced him as a charlatan. It was the loudest argument in jazz since the emergence of bebop, and perhaps the last loud enough to echo into the popular consciousness. In Thomas Pynchon’s 1963 novel “V.”, a thinly veiled character named McClintic Sphere appears, playing a “white ivory” saxophone at the “V Spot.” Pynchon’s wonderfully terse parody of the portentous debate around Coleman’s music is as follows:

“He plays all the notes Bird missed,” somebody whispered in front of Fu. Fu went silently through the motions of breaking a beer bottle on the edge of the table, jamming it into the speaker’s back and twisting.
Over fifty years later, it is hard to remember what all the fuss was about—Coleman’s music is so naturally swinging, so melodic, so bluesy, especially in comparison to the more extreme abstractions of his near contemporaries such as Cecil Taylor or Albert Ayler. But we take for granted how profound his influence was. Without Coleman’s lead, neither the spiritual explorations of the late John Coltrane Quartet nor the elegant deconstructions of the Miles Davis Quintet with Wayne Shorter would have existed. Experimental rockers from the Velvet Underground to Sonic Youth cite his example; everyone from Yoko Ono to the Grateful Dead sought his collaboration. Sourcing from those examples alone, you can draw a family tree of most of the creative jazz and popular music of the past half century.

One of those Atlantic recordings, “Free Jazz,” featuring Coleman’s double quartet, was famously paired with a Jackson Pollock painting as the cover art. While the modernist comparison with Pollock is apt, I would argue the term “free jazz” is a continuing misnomer—for all its humanistic abandon, Coleman’s music is deeply grounded in structure and concept. (The term has created other misunderstandings: a rare double quartet-concert, in Cincinnati in 1961, was cancelled after a near-riot, because the patrons took the marquee billing “Ornette Coleman—Free Jazz” too literally and refused to pay admission.)

After his initial breakthrough, Coleman continued to push boundaries, in his own idiosyncratic way. He introduced more accomplices fluent in his language, like the cornet player Bobby Bradford and the tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, two other native Texans who combined bluesy melodicism with searching improvisatory flight, as featured on Coleman’s brilliant 1971 album “Science Fiction.” He brought in his then ten-year old son Denardo to play drums on several late-sixties recordings, prioritizing a child’s joyful musical curiosity rather than technical expertise—and continued that familial collaboration for the rest of his life, as Denardo matured into one of his most frequent and trusted collaborators. Coleman taught himself how to play violin and trumpet, adding new colors to his improvisational palette—while he did not play traditionally, he coaxed sounds out of those instruments that were wholly his own and beautifully inimitable.

He composed for orchestra (“Skies of America”) and for trumpet and string quartet (“The Sacred Mind of Johnny Dolphin”), and he played with The Master Musicians of Jajouka and on film scores (“Naked Lunch”). In the nineteen-seventies, he embraced the possibilities of electric ensembles, mentoring a crew of young musicians that included James ‘Blood’ Ulmer, Bern Nix, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and Ronald Shannon Jackson and creating Prime Time, a band that turned funk into Coleman’s own harmolodic fantasy. On extraordinary recordings such as “Body Meta” and “Dancing in Your Head,” Coleman layered line upon line and rhythm upon rhythm, trusting that the inherent beauty of his melodies and the relentless pulse of his rhythms would be amplified, not obscured.

The first time I saw Ornette Coleman in concert was at the San Francisco Jazz Festival in 1993, a double bill of a revamped Prime Time (with doubled keyboards, guitars, basses, and percussion) and a new acoustic quartet with the pianist Geri Allen, the bassist Charnett Moffett (the son of Coleman’s longtime drummer Charles Moffett), and Denardo on drums. During the intermission, Coleman invited an extreme-body-modification performance artist named Fakir Musafar to offer a demonstration—which featured young people in various states of undress being pierced through the cheeks, breasts, and other seemingly un-pierceable body parts. (My favorite line from the shocked jazz-festival crowd: “Jesse Helms is on the phone—he wants to talk about your funding!”). I later read in an interview that Coleman was interested in the ability of the body to overcome pain; what most saw as courting controversy was actually yet another example of his continual curiosity. And the music reflected that ongoing search. With two keyboards, a classical acoustic guitar, and a tabla, Prime Time had morphed from free-funk propulsion to a thick, impressionistic stew; the acoustic quartet with piano mirrored a classic jazz format yet remained untethered fom jazz cliché. Neither set sounded like anything I’d heard from Coleman before, but both sounded like nothing but Ornette Coleman.

The final time I saw Coleman live was at Carnegie Hall in 2006, this time in yet another unique ensemble—a quintet with Coleman, three bassists, and Denardo again on drums. With that much activity on the sonic bottom, the music was a marvelously oblique rumble, a tangle of thick roots over which Coleman’s alto blossomed. He was seventy-six years old at the time, but his sound, his whole concept, sounded impossibly fresh yet familiar. I remember he closed the concert with an encore of “Lonely Woman,” perhaps his most famous composition and a gesture to his past. As ever, the music was deceptively simple and implacably radical. Ornette Coleman ignored the boundaries between high art and folk music, between modernism and tradition; he recognized that the most human impulse is to explore and search for beauty. It is to all of our benefit that his own search was so fruitful.

Jazz legend Ornette Coleman has died. These 4 songs show why he mattered.
by Max Fisher
June 11, 2015


The legendary jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who died on Thursday at 85, pioneered and personified a style that is not regarded as especially accessible. Free jazz is highly experimental even for jazz, chaotic and often dissonant by design, rejecting traditional boundaries of tonality and rhythm. It can come across as more art movement than musical style, and thus as opaque and self-serious — as work.

But free jazz can also be fun. It can make you tap your foot and hum along. Coleman, in classic 1959 albums like The Shape of Jazz to Come, found a style that was artistically significant as well as — despite common misconception to the contrary — enjoyable to listen to. If you like jazz even a little bit, you owe it to yourself to overcome any preconceived notions you have about Coleman and give him a listen.

Whether you're a Coleman fan who wants to remember why you love him or a neophyte curious about whether you'll like his music, these following tracks are worth a listen. They help convey why the shows during his heyday were said to have been such raucous fun, as well as why Coleman's artistic contribution was such that, as the New York Times put it in its Coleman obituary, he "symbolized the American independent will as effectively as any artist of the last century."

1) "Ramblin" from Change of the Century (1960)

This is a great place to start: it's bluesy, with a catchy and accessible melody, but still unmistakably Coleman in its oddball pitches and rhythms.

2) "Chronology" from The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959)

Coleman's unusual sound, at first jarring, becomes a little less alien if you think of it as sort of like singing — it's been compared to the wail of a blues singer. Where this really gets unconventional is after the band gets through the chorus and start improvising. The first solo on this track, from trumpeter Don Cherry, begins as straightforward and takes progressively more liberties with melody, key, and rhythm. But the Coleman solo that follows deviates from the standard conventions even more — which is exactly what makes it such a blast to hear.

3) "Law Years" from Science Fiction (1971)

Coleman's output is as much celebrated for Coleman's playing as it is for that of bassist Charlie Haden, who died last year. Shy in person but spectacularly bold on stage, he was considered one of the great jazz bassists of the era, and that comes through here.

4) "Faces and Places" from At the Golden Circle Stockholm (1965)
Coleman, in a trio rather than a quartet and in a live setting rather than a studio, unspools a bit more here. It's not always as easy to follow, but his creativity and adventurousness are undeniable.


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

"Jazz, rock, pop, blues, gospel, and classical are all yesterday's titles. I'm playing the music of today..."

"Play the music, not the background"

"Sound is to people what the sun is to light"

"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."

"Jazz is the only music in which the same note can be played night after night but differently each time."

"That's what I was trying to say when we were talking about sound. I think that every person, whether they play music or don't play music, has a sound - their own sound, that thing that you're talking about."

"It's just someone has labelled us as having a different label to do what you do. I find that labels are the worst thing in the world for artistic expression."

"You've got to realize. In the western world, regardless of what color you are, what title the music is, it's all played by the same notes."

"How can I turn emotion into knowledge? That's what I try to do with my horn."

"The state of surviving in music is more like 'what music are you playing.' But music isn't a style, it's an idea. The idea of music, without it being a style - I don't hear that much anymore."

"There are some intervals that carry that human quality if you play them in the right pitch. I don't care how many intervals a person can play on their instrument; you can reach into the human sound of a voice on your horn if you're actually hearing and trying to express the warmth of the human voice."

"I don't try to please when I play. I try to cure."…/jacques-derrida-inter…

Jacques Derrida interviews Ornette Coleman / "Sound has a much more democratic relationship to information"


A conversation between French philosopher Jacques Derrida and jazz musician Ornette Coleman, this interview has some echoes of the Esperanza Spaulding conversation, particularly both Spaulding's and Coleman's perception of the relationship between music and voice/language.
"So the comparison between bass and voice I think would be that the melodies that I’m playing on bass, for most listeners, are much more abstract than what I’m singing. We have such an ingrained connection with the human voice, that however I open my mouth and sing, it’s going to have some symbolism or meaning for the listener -- because it’s a voice. The way I breathe, the way I enunciate, even if I’m not singing lyrics, and then when you add lyrics -- okay, so then it’s not abstract at all. I’m actually telling you what I’m talking about, what I’m emoting about. So with the bass, there’s a certain freedom in the abstraction."
-Esperanza Spalding
"I'm trying to express a concept according to which you can translate one thing into another. I think that sound has a much more democratic relationship to information, because you don't need the alphabet to  understand music."
-Ornette Coleman

The Other's Language: Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman, 23 June 1997

(SOURCE: Jazz Studies Online)

On improvisation
Jacques Derrida: "The very concept of improvisation verges upon reading, since what we often understand by improvisation is the creation of something new, yet something which doesn't exclude the pre-written framework that makes it possible."

Ornette Coleman: "...the idea is that two or three people can have a conversation with sounds, without trying to dominate it or lead it. What I mean is that you have to be .. . intelligent, I suppose that's the word. In improvised music I think the musicians are trying to reassemble an emotional or intellectual puzzle, in any case a puzzle in which the instruments give the tone. It's primarily the piano that has served at all times as the framework in music, but it's no longer indispensable and, in fact, the commercial aspect of music is very uncertain. Commercial music is not necessarily more accessible, but it is limited."

On composing

Ornette Coleman: "If you're playing music that you've already recorded, most musicians think that you're hiring them to keep that music alive. And most musicians don't have as much enthusiasm when they have to play the same things every time. So I prefer to write music that they've never played before..."

"I want to stimulate them instead of asking them simply to accompany me in front of the public. But I find that it's very difficult to do, because the jazz musician is probably the only person for whom the composer is not a very interesting individual, in the sense that he prefers to destroy what the composer writes or says."

On pre-written pieces

Ornette Coleman: "I don't know if it's true for language, but in jazz you can take a very old piece and do another version of it. What's exciting is the memory that you bring to the present. What you're talking about, the form that metamorphoses into other forms, I think it's something healthy, but very rare."

On language

Ornette Coleman: Do you ever ask yourself if the language that you speak now interferes with your actual thoughts? Can a language of origin influence your thoughts?

Jaacques Derrida: It is an enigma for me. I cannot know it. I know that something speaks through me, a  language that I don't understand, that I sometimes translate more or less easi¬ly into my "language." I am of course a French intellectual, I teach in French-speak¬ing schools, but I have the impression that something is forcing me to do something for the French language...

Ornette Coleman: But you know, in my case, in the United States, they call the English that blacks speak "ebonics": they can use an expression that means something else than in current English. The black community has always used a signifying language. When I arrived in California, it was the first time that I was in a place [milieu] where a white man wasn't telling me that I couldn't sit somewhere. Someone began to ask me loads of questions, and I just didn't follow, so then I decided to go see a psychiatrist to see if I understood him. And he gave me a prescription for Valium. I took that valium and threw it in the toilet. I didn't always know where I was, so I went to a library and I checked out all the books possible and imaginable on the human brain, I read them all. They said that the brain was only a conversation. They didn't say what about, but this made me understand that the fact of thinking and knowing doesn't only depend on the place of origin. I understand more and more that what we call the human brain, in the sense of knowing and being, is not the same thing as the human brain that makes us what we are." (source / pdf)

PLUS: Excerpt from a recent interview with Ornette Coleman (2008):


Wednesday, March 9, 2011



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, music theorist, and 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...


HAPPY BIRTHDAY ORNETTE!…/…/130105770/why-we-love-ornette-coleman

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

Ornette Coleman--'Body Meta' [FULL ALBUM]
Horizon Records, 1976

1. Voice Poetry
2. Home Grown
3. Macho Woman
4. Fou Amour
5. European Echoes

Ornette Coleman - Saxophone, Alto Saxophone
Charlie Ellerbie - Guitar
Ronald Shannon Jackson - Drums
Bern Nix - Guitar
Jamaaladeen Tacuma - Bass

Recorded on December 19, 1976
Ornette Coleman - 'Dancing in your Head'-- [FULL ALBUM]
Horizon Records, 1976

Dancing in Your Head is a 1976 release by jazz artist Ornette Coleman. It was the first to feature his electric band, which later became known as Prime Time.


1. Theme from a Symphony (variation one)
2. Theme from a Symphony (variation two)
3. Midnight Sunrise
4. Midnight Sunrise (alternate take)

Ornette Coleman - alto saxophone
Bern Nix - 1st lead guitar
Charlie Ellerbee - 2nd lead guitar
Rudy McDaniel - Bass guitar
Shannon Jackson - drums
Robert Palmer - clarinet on "Midnight Sunrise"
Master Musicians of Jajouka on "Midnight Sunrise"


Compositions by Ornette Coleman:

A1 Sleep Talk
A2 Jump Street
A3 Him And Her
A4 Air Ship
B1 What Is The Name Of That Song?
B2 Job Mob
B3 Love Words
B4 Times Square

Alto Saxophone – Ornette Coleman
Bass Guitar – Jamaaladeen Tacuma
Drums – Calvin Weston, Ornette Denardo Coleman
Guitar – Bern Nix, Charlie Ellerbee

Cover Painting – Susan Bernstein

Recorded on April 25, 1979, N.Y.C.—Released in 1982


Ornette Coleman’s Greatest Hits
JUNE 11, 2015
New York Times

Clips of Jazz Legend Ornette Coleman

Challenges to the traditions of jazz were the hallmarks of Ornette Coleman’s long career. 

Watch in Times Video »

By Erica Berenstein on Publish Date June 11, 2015. Photo by Martial Trezzini/European Pressphoto Agency.

Ornette Coleman’s varied and provocative recordings reflect many bands and changes of sound, from post-bebop to symphonic music to an original version of funk. Here is a brief selection of high points, a dozen tracks from his late-1950s beginnings to 2007, including some of the most durable and influential jazz of the 20th century.

Listen to our Spotify playlist of Mr. Coleman’s music Ornette Coleman’s varied and provocative recordings reflect many bands and changes of sound, from post-bebop to symphonic music to an original version of funk. Here is a brief selection of high points, a dozen tracks from his late-1950s beginnings to 2007, including some of the most durable and influential jazz of the 20th century.

Listen to our Spotify playlist of Mr. Coleman’s music

“When Will the Blues Leave?” From “Something Else!!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman,” recorded in 1958 for Contemporary Records in Los Angeles with an early version of  Mr. Coleman’s band, including the trumpeter Don Cherry, the pianist Walter Norris, the bassist Charlie Haden and the drummer Billy Higgins — just before he subtracted the piano from his group sound.

“Turnaround” From “Tomorrow Is the Question!,” an original blues that stayed in Mr. Coleman’s live repertory to the end.

Related Coverage:

Ornette Coleman performing at the Village Vanguard in 1961.

Ornette Coleman, Saxophonist Who Rewrote the Language of Jazz, Dies at 85
JUNE 11, 2015

“Lonely Woman” This ballad is Mr. Coleman’s most famous composition, from “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” recorded in 1959. It was Mr. Coleman’s first album for Atlantic Records, and it included the other members of his working quartet: Mr. Cherry, Mr. Haden and Mr. Higgins.

“Ramblin’ ” An untraditional kind of blues, from “Change of the Century,” recorded in late 1959.

“Embraceable You” A rare example of Mr. Coleman recording music written by anyone else: a version by his quartet in 1960 (with Ed Blackwell replacing Mr. Higgins on drums) of the George and Ira Gershwin standard.

“Free Jazz” If you understand the word “free” as a kind of absolute condition, this music, recorded in 1960, isn’t quite that. It finds its regular rhythm and uses some predetermined material. But it was a double-quartet, album-length, mostly improvised landmark.

“Broadway Blues” From “New York Is Now,” in 1968, with the addition of the saxophonist Dewey Redman to Mr. Coleman’s musical circle.

“What Reason Could I Give” From “Science Fiction,” 1970, a ballad to rival “Lonely Woman,” including the singer Asha Puthli.

“All of My Life” From “Skies of America,” his symphonic work recorded in 1972.

“Theme From a Symphony (Variation One)” A new sound for a new era recorded with Mr. Coleman’s new electric band, Prime Time, and released on the album “Dancing in Your Head” in 1977.

“Word From Bird” From “Song X,” recorded with the guitarist Pat Metheny in 1985.

“Sleep Talking” From “Sound Grammar,” the album that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007, with his late-period group quartet, including the bassists Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga as well as Denardo Coleman on drums.

Correction: June 11, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the record that “Theme From a Symphony (Variation One)” was released on. It was “Dancing in Your Head,” not “Body Meta.