Ornette Coleman, the visionary alto saxophonist and composer whose radical ideas about musical structure upended the course of jazz history, died June 11 in New York. The cause was cardiac arrest, according to a representative for his family. He was 85.
A man of humble beginnings, Coleman went on to win some of the world’s most prestigious musical accolades, among them the Pulitzer Prize and the much-coveted MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship. He was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, an autodidact who got his start working with minstrel acts and R&B bands on the Southern network of clubs then called the “chitlin’ circuit.” Though his work later took him to concert halls around the world, the rustic cry of the blues remained a hallmark of his sound.
It was in Los Angeles in the late 1950s that Coleman forged relationships with the likeminded musicians (bassist Charlie Haden, drummers Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell) who would put him on the road to stardom. He summed up his method with one of the cryptic explanations for which he became well known: “The pattern of the tune will be forgotten, and the tune itself will be the pattern.” Coleman’s first innovations, exhibited on Atlantic albums with provocative titles like The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, expanded the range of possibilities in jazz at a time when the music’s idiom seemed at the limits of harmonic exploration. Coleman was as beholden to the genius of Charlie Parker, the era’s avatar of jazz modernism, as the rest of the jazz scene, but his solution was to trade the complexity of bebop-era chord changes and modalism for a melodic simplicity that was playful and earthy. It was an endeavor to “free” jazz from conventional strictures that reached its conceptual zenith on another provocatively titled record, 1961’s Free Jazz.
That initial liberation proved fruitful for the rest of Coleman’s career. By the ’70s he had turned to performing with electric instrumentation and writing expanded works of composition, both of which resisted categorization. He coined the term “harmolodic” to define his music’s absence of borders.
Coleman’s brand of jazz-funk, now performed under the ensemble title Prime Time, would become highly influential when his electric sidemen, among them James “Blood” Ulmer and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, would leave to form their own bands.
Coleman’s survivors include his son Denardo, who played drums with him frequently, and a grandson.
“He invented a whole new musical system,” said Yves Beauvais, Coleman’s friend and producer of the 1993 boxed set Beauty Is a Rare Thing. “He was the last great jazzman of his generation: There was Mingus, Miles, Coltrane — and him.”
–K. Leander Williams