Avant-garde saxophonist whose radical improvisations divided audiences
Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30
Ornette Coleman, who died on June 11 aged 85, was a saxophonist, composer and musical revolutionary; his effect on jazz has been compared with that of atonality on classical music or of cubism on painting, sharply dividing the audience into those who accepted or rejected his approach.
The division turned out to be permanent. There was little gradual acceptance of Coleman's innovations, as had been the case with Charlie Parker, no slow absorption into the mainstream. He had to be taken on his own terms or not at all. As one critic put it, "with Ornette Coleman, jazz established its permanent avant garde".
Coleman repudiated previous jazz practice in many ways. His improvisations did not follow a predetermined harmonic pattern, ignored conventional chorus structure, deviated from normal conceptions of pitch, even questioned the idea of a regular beat. Some, like the musicologist Gunther Schuller, hailed these innovations as a liberation, creating "spontaneous collective interplay". Others, such as Philip Larkin, dismissed them as "squeak and gibber".
But the usual charge levelled against radical jazz innovators that their music was "not jazz" could never be applied to Coleman. Rather, it was as though he had gone back to the rough folk roots of jazz and created his own alternative line of evolution. Eventually, his art reached beyond the borders of jazz itself to embrace what he called "the three kinds of Western music - ethnic, popular and classical".
Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on March 9, 1930. His father, a mechanic, died when he was seven. His mother was a seamstress.
"I had very little formal schooling", he once remarked, "and, coming from Texas, I had never spoken as an equal to a white person until I moved out to California when I was 21." At the age of 14, he bought a saxophone, and taught himself to play.
He began playing in local bands and, aged 19, left home to tour with a minstrel show. From there, he joined Pee Wee Crayton's rhythm and blues band. Already, his unorthodox style of playing was causing trouble. He was barracked, and even physically attacked, by outraged patrons, until Crayton was finally reduced to paying him to keep quiet.
He left Crayton's band in Los Angeles in 1951 and settled there, supporting himself with a series of menial jobs.
Although rejected by most other musicians, Coleman gradually assembled a small coterie of like-minded players to perform the music which he was now composing. Early in 1958, they were heard by the bassist Red Mitchell, who was baffled by the improvisation but attracted by Coleman's fresh-sounding melodies. He introduced Coleman as a composer to Lester Koenig, head of Contemporary Records. Koenig, fascinated both by the tunes and the way they were played, offered to record Coleman and his band. The resulting album, Something Else!!!!, was released later that year, causing a considerable stir.
Coleman's sudden appearance from total obscurity, the strangeness of his music and the fact that he played a plastic alto saxophone soon attracted public attention. A further album, Tomorrow is the Question, quickly followed, and in November 1959, Coleman and his band - Don Cherry (trumpet), Charlie Haden (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums) - made their New York debut at the Five Spot Café in Greenwich Village.
The original two-week engagement lengthened into six months as Coleman's music became a talking point among the intelligentsia, and celebrities crowded into the Five Spot to hear for themselves. "Every night the club would be jammed, with some people hating what I was doing and calling me a charlatan, and other people loving it and calling me a genius," he recalled.
Albums, often with visionary titles, such as The Shape of Jazz to Come, or Change of the Century, followed in quick succession. Free Jazz, released in 1961, featured a Jackson Pollock painting on the cover.
Coleman's example inspired other musicians to experiment with "free-form" jazz, although no one could match the rough lyricism and unfeigned earthiness of his style. This was a period of growing agitation in the civil rights struggle, and free-form jazz of the time often amounted to little more than a howl of anger. Coleman's music, however, remained self-absorbed and curiously serene. In later years, several of Coleman's melodies from his early, revolutionary years turned out to be remarkably durable. Numbers such as Lonely Woman, When Will the Blues Leave? and Uma Muy Bonita have survived to become minor jazz standards.
In 1962, Coleman temporarily withdrew from public performance in order to study composition. Three years later, with bassist David Izenson and drummer Charles Moffett, he visited Europe for the first time, where he encouraged the early stirrings of a free-form movement. He played one concert in Britain, at the Fairfield Hall, Croydon, in defiance of restrictions imposed by the Musicians' Union and the Ministry of Labour.
The resulting rumpus reinforced his public profile as a proud and independent spirit. While in London, he also recorded his Forms and Sounds, for wind quintet, with the Virtuoso Ensemble. During the same tour, the trio's performance at Stockholm's Golden Circle club was recorded by Blue Note records. The resulting albums revealed that Coleman had now taken up both trumpet and violin, apparently for their tone colours, which were used impressionistically in his piece Snowflakes and Sunshine.
Formal composition was now occupying much of Coleman's time. In 1972, he completed a 21-movement suite, Skies of America, which he recorded for Columbia with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Three years later, he formed a new band, Prime Time, which incorporated elements of funk and rock music. This caused dismay among some of his most devoted followers, who suspected that his purity of purpose might be wavering. Any such suspicion should have been banished after a few minutes' exposure to Prime Time in full cry, with its two drummers and two bassists setting up a polyrhythmic barrage while Coleman and two electric guitars pursued independent lines of melody.
Around this time, he developed a convoluted theory of music which he called "harmolodics". Virtually every published interview with him, from about 1978 onwards, contains a discussion of this topic, usually accompanied by the interviewer's attempt at a concise summing-up. In no two cases do these explanations tally. Grove's Dictionary of Jazz concludes that "the theoretical underpinnings of harmolodic theory are extremely suspect".
Coleman was famously open-handed to struggling musicians. As a result, despite receiving numerous awards, including Guggenheim Fellowships in 1967 and 1974, he was permanently broke. Needing somewhere to live and a space to rehearse, in 1982 he rented a vast loft in a rundown part of New York's Lower East Side. It was repeatedly burgled: once, Coleman was attacked, beaten with an iron bar and stabbed, his injuries putting him out of action for six months.
In 1986, he collaborated with the guitarist Pat Metheny to record Song X, an album which brought him a measure of commercial success, and some music awards. Many of his subsequent recordings were also the result of collaborations. In 2007, Coleman received the Pulitzer Prize for Music, following the release of his album Sound Grammar. He was presented with a lifetime Grammy Award in the same year. In 2009, he presided over the Southbank Centre's annual "Meltdown" concert series, where his guests included Yoko Ono, Patti Smith and his old colleague Charlie Haden.
In 1954, Coleman married the poet and performance artist Jayne Cortez; the marriage was dissolved. Their son, the drummer Denardo Coleman, survives him.