The jazz music genre lost one of its most important artists with the loss of saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Coleman, who ushered in a new sound in jazz, died Thursday, June 11 in New York City at the age of 85.
Coleman is credited with creating the term “free jazz,” a style that did away with harmonies and structure in favor of a more free-wheeling and improvisational style. He was born Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman on March 9, 1930 in Forth Worth, Texas. Coleman was raised primarily in the state and began his musical career there.
According to his website, Coleman was interested in music from a young age. Coleman taught himself how to play by ear, and worked with several R&B bands in and around Texas. His first big break occurred in 1949 when he joined the Silas Green from New Orleans traveling variety show.
Coleman’s time with Silas Green came to and end after a band of musicians beat him up and destroyed his saxophone for playing differently. Coleman then moved to Los Angeles to play with R&B bandleader Pee Wee Crayton. While out West, he encountered jazz musicians Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell, and Charlie Haden, among others, who embraced some of his bold ideas.
Coleman’s playing became looser and traditional jazz musicians, especially those in the bebop tradition, found his style grating to some degree. Even experimental legends such as Miles Davis didn’t at first agree with Coleman’s direction. But by the time Coleman released his 1961 album, Free Jazz, the new sound was adopted by Charlie Mingus, John Coltrane, and many others.
Over the course of more than 50 releases, Coleman picked up other instruments such as the violin and trumpet. Some early critics wrote that his expertise in those instruments wasn’t as strong as his saxophone playing, but he dared to keep pushing his musical limits all the same.
Coleman had a seemingly limitless amount of energy to produce and create music, passing that ability on to his only son, Denardo, who played drums on his 1966 album, The Empty Foxhole. In the late ’60’s, Coleman joined forces with free jazz players like Dewey Redman, father of current saxophonist Joshua Redman.
Over the years, Coleman’s style began to evolve and. He even performed on Saturday Night Live, rare for a jazz artist. In 1984, Coleman was also awarded a National Endowment of The Arts Jazz Master fellowship along with a MacArthur “Genius” grant in 1994.
In 2007, Coleman won a Pulitzer in Music for his 2007 album, Sound Grammar.
Coleman is survived by his son and grandson. He divorced his wife, poet Jayne Cortez, in 1964.
(Photo: Legacy Recordings)