Ornette Coleman: the saxophonist who invented free jazz

Theodora Aidoo April 14, 2020
Pic Credit: Frans Schellekens/Redferns

Ornette Coleman was an alto saxophonist, violinist, trumpeter and composer, who was described as “the most polarizing figure in Jazz”. He is said to have invented free jazz, an approach that broke down barriers in traditional performance.

His saxophone sound, according to The Guardian, was steeped in the slurred notes and rough-hewn intonation of 19th-century singers and saloon-front guitarists at work before jazz was even born.

Ornette Coleman was one of the most powerful and greatest innovators in the history of jazz. He “simplified the conventional harmonic framework of jazz, remoulding the raw materials of improvisation and casting off the formal and technical bonds of the bebop style dominating jazz during his childhood”.

Coleman’s influence in the late 1950s and early ’60s created freedom for jazz from the rules of harmony and rhythm. He was born in Fort Worth, Texas, to Randolph, a construction worker, who was also a cook. His mother, Rosa, was a clerk in a funeral home. Coleman lost his father when he was only seven years old.

He attended I.M. Terrell High School where he’d meet three of his future bandmates – the saxophonist Dewey Redman and the drummers Charles Moffett and Ronald Shannon Jackson. There he also met Red Connor, a bebop tenor saxophonist who influenced him by playing jazz as “an idea” rather than as a series of patterns.

He first learned to play the saxophone using an alto saxophone his mother gave him when he was 14 years old. At the time, he had not yet understood that because of transposition between instruments, a C in the piano’s “concert key” was an A on his instrument. When he learned the truth, he said, he developed a lifelong suspicion of the rules of Western harmony and musical notation.

“I thought music was just something human beings done naturally, like eating. I thought [the saxophone] was a toy and I just played it. Didn’t know you have to learn something to find out what the toy does,” he once said.

He learned to play by ear. He soon began playing alto and then tenor saxophone in rhythm-and-blues and society bands around Texas, backing up vocalists and practicing the honking, gutbucket style that reportedly made stars out of Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb.

Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman in 1959 – Pic Credit: Michael Ochs Archives

He moved to Los Angeles to play R&B and he often worked as an elevator operator while also engrossed in musical theory. He soon discovered a completely new approach to improvising, different from the norm. It was a new kind of jazz known as bebop.

In 1951 he got together with Blackwell in Los Angeles and drew in New Orleans musicians. There he met drummer, Billy Higgins and trumpet-playing Don Cherry. In 1958, a group including Cherry and the pianist Walter Norris made Coleman’s recording debut for the Los Angeles jazz label Contemporary Records.

That same year, Canadian piano virtuoso Paul Bley hired Coleman and Cherry to join the bassist Charlie Haden and Higgins in his own group. These trio musicians became exceptional musical sensation.

Coleman made his second album “Tomorrow Is the Question!” in 1959. One of the tracks – Tears Inside – later became a classic. His playing was by now a partly planned, partly serendipitous mingling of tonal, atonal and microtonal music (the exact pitch of Coleman’s notes defy the tuning fork), infused with the blues, according to The Guardian.

He soon became widely known and John Lewis, the pianist for the Modern Jazz Quartet, recommended Coleman to Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic Records where Coleman with Mr Cherry, Mr Haden and Mr Higgins then recorded six numbers for Atlantic in May 1959.

Ornette Coleman performing at the Village Vanguard in 1961.
Ornette Coleman performing at the Village Vanguard in 1961 – Pic Credit: Sam Falk/The New York Times

Coleman was later invited by John Lewis to the School of Jazz in Lenox, Mass., a summer institution that he ran. Coleman’s music fascinated some teaching musicians that the critic Martin Williams wrote, “I believe that what Ornette Coleman is playing will affect the whole character of jazz music profoundly and pervasively.”

Coleman and his group made nine records with Atlantic in less than two years. Coleman’s group began to fall-out as he pursued more control of his music and insisted on better pay, reducing his bookings. Haden was hospitalized for heroin addiction while Cherry joined Sonny Rollins.

In 1962 Coleman rented the Town Hall, the New York performance space, to play with his new trio, featuring David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on drums, and on one piece with a string quartet.

He wrote music on a well-paid commission for “Chappaqua,” a movie about drug addiction by the Avon cosmetics scion Conrad Rooks. Though Mr Rooks rejected the music, for jazz quartet and orchestra, in the end, it was released by Columbia Records.

In a 2009 appearance at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, Mr. Coleman, left, on alto sax, with Al MacDowell. His final public performance was five years later.
Coleman, left, on alto sax, with Al MacDowell in a 2009 appearance at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater – Pic Credit: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Coleman made the album “The Empty Foxhole,” in 1966 with Mr Haden on bass and his 10-year-old son Denardo, on drums. Coleman bought two floors of an industrial building in SoHo, on Prince Street which he called Artists House and launched his kind of music. He produced concerts there and formed a new band that included Dewey Redman on tenor saxophone.

Among the albums produced, for Blue Note and Columbia, were “New York Is Now!” and “Science Fiction.” Coleman wrote a concerto grosso called “Skies of America,” which he recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1972.

In 1973, he traveled to the Rif mountains of Morocco to collaborate with the famed musicians of Jajouka. Coleman released records with Prime Time and collaborated with the guitarist Pat Metheny on the album “Song X.”

Coleman played on Howard Shore’s soundtrack to the film “Naked Lunch,” based on the novel by William S. Burroughs in 1991. He was awarded a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master fellowship in 1984 and made a MacArthur Foundation fellow in 1994.

In 2004, Coleman formed a new quartet with two bassists and Denardo Coleman on drums and started the Sound Grammar record label. In 2007, he won the Pulitzer Prize and also received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award and performed at the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee.

During his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech, he said: “One of the things I am experiencing is very important. 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.”

Coleman died aged 85, in Manhattan in 2015.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: April 14, 2020


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