Ornette Coleman, jazz innovator, dead from heart attack at 85

Ornette Coleman, jazz innovator, dead from heart attack at 85

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Passing away Thursday morning, June 11 in Manhattan, saxophonist and “Free Jazz” pioneer was major influence on contemporary jazz, hip-hop, pop and rock musicians.

Jazz great, saxophonist Ornette Coleman, dead at 85. (Screen grab from YouTube video)

NEW YORK, June 13, 2015 – Saxophonist, composer and all-around musical innovator Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman, 85, succumbed to cardiac arrest in Manhattan Thursday morning. According to various sources, his publicist, Ken Weinstein, confirmed his death.

Ornette Coleman.
Ornette Coleman at Enjoy Jazz Festival 2008, Heidelberg, Germany. (Via Wikipedia)

Controversial in many jazz circles early in his career, Ornette Coleman (March 9, 1930 – June 11, 2015) as he came to be known, turned out to be ahead of his time in many ways, ultimately proving to be a strong influence not only in the world of jazz, but also in the pop, rock and hip-hop music genres dating from the 1960s and beyond.

A musical innovator, he virtually coined the term “free jazz” to describe his highly personal and individualistic style as it was boldly performed on his pathbreaking 1960 vinyl recording of the same name.

Even though improvisation has always been part of American jazz, Coleman took that tradition over the top with his lengthy improvisations that increasingly wandered a great distance from the original tune, often bursting out in wild, craggy, virtually atonal excursions.

Coleman’s highly modernistic improvisations frequently proved shocking to traditional jazz aficionados in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Over time, however, other musicians followed suit in jazz and other genres, although “free jazz” improv has not always been warmly embraced, even today.

Later in his life, however, Coleman finally was accorded the kind of honors that had eluded him earlier in his career, winning a MacArthur Foundation genius grant in 1994 and copping a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his CD album, “Sound Grammar.”

Born Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman in Fort Worth, Texas, the future jazz great was given his first saxophone as a child, and from that point, he never looked back. An intuitive performer, he learned quickly and itched to do more.

He soon gained enough confidence that he decided to leave home in his teens and strike out on his own, migrating from Texas to the jazz hotbed of next-door Louisiana, where he wound up in post-WWII New Orleans.

Soon, he was playing tenor sax in area R&B bands. That is, until his instrument was destroyed in a disturbance during a Baton Rouge performance, after which he picked up the alto sax—the instrument that made him famous.

Coleman ended up in L.A. in the early 1950s, performing for a time in the Pee Wee Crayton band while picking up odd jobs here and there to make ends meet.

Like every band or solo musician, however, Coleman needed a vinyl record or two in order to gain greater recognition and enough of a wider audience to give his career a boost. But his fast-developing and definitively non-standard performance style wasn’t helping him with record labels that were primarily looking for traditional jazz fare with mass audience (and profit) appeal.

But, expressing no love for be-bop, Coleman’s improvisatory preferences also wandered further and further from the accepted round-robin improvisations that were the bread and butter for classic, traditional jazz bands. Bending notes sometimes beyond recognition, departing from accepted jazz scales, launching into rapid, frantic, fragmented patterns ending with a screech and departing meter often entirely, Coleman’s distinctive output rarely approached the generally well-known requirements for inking a deal with a well-known record label.

Some avant-garde musicians and audiences loved and admired what Coleman was doing. But most at the time did not, to the point where some jazz musicians simply refused to perform with him.

Nonetheless, Coleman finally managed to sign with the edgy West Coast Contemporary label, recording two albums with them in the late 1950s before moving to the bigger Atlantic label. There he at last began to make his mark with his distinctive “free jazz” approach. While still distasteful to many even today, his seemingly anarchical style seemed to prophesy at the time the coming violence and social upheaval that were to mark—and indelibly scar—the next American decade.

Coleman’s recordings and appearances became less frequent at the 20th century turned into the 21st. But his cross-genre performances with other musicians attracted more interest to his own music, highlighted by a 2010 guest performance with Sonny Rollins, where the pair indulged the audience in a brilliant game of dueling saxophone soloists, gaining new fans for both musicians.

Just a year ago, Coleman appeared onstage with his musician son Denardo and his band in an Ornette Coleman tribute concert given in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The elder Coleman was enthusiastically received by the crowd and amply demonstrated he still had the chops—and the style—at the age of 84, as is clear in the following YouTube video clip of that portion of the concert.

In an interview with England’s Guardian newspaper, Coleman perhaps came closest to describing his musical and performance credo: “The idea is the highest quality of expression. It is immortal, it is without class and it doesn’t care anything about wealth. … The only thing that I’m trying to do right now, honest to God, is to free myself to the supreme order of ideas — not style, not color, not notes, not rhythm. I could go and get my horn and play for you, and believe me, I would play something. I don’t know what it is, but I do know I would never have played it [before].”


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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17