Ornette Coleman Biography

9 March 1930, Fort Worth, Texas, USA. The evolution of any art form is a complex process and it is always an over-simplification to attribute a development to a single person. If there is anyone apart from Louis Armstrong for whom that claim could be made, however, Ornette Coleman would be a tenable candidate. Charlie Parker and John Coltrane were great forces for progress, but they focused and made viable certain concepts that were already in the air and which only awaited some exceptionally talented artist to give them concrete shape. They accelerated evolution, but did not change the direction of jazz in the way that Armstrong and Coleman seem to have done. Of course, certain elements of Coleman’s music, including free improvisation, had been tried previously and he certainly did not reject what had gone before: his playing is well-rooted in the soil of Parker’s bop tradition, and in R&B - Coleman’s playing is a logical development from both, but he set the melody free and jolted jazz out of its 30-year obsession with chords. His role is somewhat analogous to that of Arnold Schoenberg in European classical music, although, unlike Schoenberg, Coleman did not forge a second set of shackles to replace the ones he burst.

Those who do not recognize Coleman’s contribution to music select two sticks from his early career with which to beat him. The first is that, when he acquired his first saxophone at the age of 14, he thought the low C on the alto was the A in his instruction book. Of course, he discovered his mistake after a while, but the realization of his error caused him to look at pitch and harmony in a fresh way, and this started the process that led to a style based on freely moving melody unhindered by a repetitive harmonic sub-structure, and, eventually, to the theory of harmolodics. The second was that, when in Pee Wee Crayton’s band, he was playing so badly that he was paid to keep silent. Crayton remembered it slightly differently: he said that Coleman was quite capable of playing the blues convincingly, but chose not to, so Crayton told him forcefully that that’s what he was paid to do. In 1946 Coleman had taken up the tenor saxophone and joined the ‘Red’ Connors band. He played in blues and R&B bands for some time, sat in with Stan Kenton on one occasion, and in 1949 took the tenor chair in a touring minstrel show. He recorded several of his own compositions in Natchez, Mississippi, in the same year, but these have never resurfaced. He was stranded in New Orleans, where he found it hard to get anyone to play with him, and eventually hooked up with Crayton’s band, which took him to Los Angeles in 1950. He took a number of jobs unconnected with music, but continued his study of theory when he could. In the early and mid-50s he began to establish contact with musicians who were in sympathy with his ideas, such as Bobby Bradford, Ed Blackwell and Don Cherry, and in 1958 he recorded for Contemporary in Los Angeles. He met John Lewis, who arranged for the Coleman quartet - then comprising Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins - to play a two-week engagement at New York’s Five Spot Cafe; this turned into a legendary 54-month stay during which Coleman was physically assaulted by an irate bebop drummer, described as ‘psychotic’ by Miles Davis, and hailed as the saviour of jazz by others. Lewis also secured Coleman a recording contract with Atlantic Records, where he made a series of influential but controversial albums, most notably Free Jazz, a collective improvisation for double quartet. After signing him, Atlantic sponsored Coleman and Don Cherry at the Lenox School of Jazz. At this time he earned the admiration of classical composer/academics like Gunther Schuller, who involved him in a number of Third Stream works (e.g. on the John Lewis albumJazz Abstractions).

During 1963/4 Coleman went into retirement, learning trumpet and violin, before appearing again in 1965 with the highly influential trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffett that he had introduced on the 1962 Town Hall album. It was during the currency of this trio that Coleman began to promote his ‘classical’ writing (Saints And Soldiers). Also in the mid-60s, Coleman turned his attention to writing film scores, the best known of which is Chappaqua Suite, which features Pharoah Sanders. He also made a guest appearance - on trumpet! - on Jackie McLean’s New And Old Gospel. In 1968 a second saxophonist, Dewey Redman, was added to the group, and Izenzon and Moffett were replaced by Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, John Coltrane’s former bass player and drummer. By the end of the 60s, Coleman was again playing with his early associates, such as Haden, Cherry, Bradford, Higgins and Blackwell, various combinations of which can be heard on Crisis, Paris Concert, Science Fiction and Broken Shadows.

In the mid-70s Coleman began using electric guitars and basses and some rock rhythms with a band that eventually evolved into Prime Time, which continues to this day. The theory of harmolodics has underpinned his music for the last 30 years in particular. Even musicians who have worked with Coleman extensively confess that they do not understand what the theory is about, but there are some threads which can be discerned: two of the most readily understood are that all instruments have their own peculiar, natural voice and should play in the appropriate range, regardless of conventional notions of key, and, secondly, that there is a sort of democracy of instruments, whereby the distinction between soloist and accompanist, leader and sidemen, front-line instruments and rhythm section, is broken down. Coleman is such a powerful improviser that in performance the soloist-accompanist division often remains, but the concept of harmolodics has been quite influential, and is evident in the music of James ‘Blood’ Ulmer, Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society (Ulmer and Jackson were both members of the proto-Prime Time and Coleman guests on the former’s 1978 Tales Of Captain Black) and Pinski Zoo.

While Coleman is seen by many as the father of free jazz his music has never been as abstract, as centred on pure sound as that of the Chicago AACM circle or of many European exponents of improvised music. His playing is always intensely personal, with a ‘human vocalized’ sound especially notable on alto, and there is usually a strong, if fluid, rhythmic feel which has become increasingly obvious with Prime Time. There is often a sense of a tonal centre, albeit not one related to the European tempered system, and melodically, both as a writer and improviser, he evinces an acute talent for pleasing design. This he manages without the safety-net of a chord-cycle: instead of the more traditional method of creating symmetrical shapes within a pre-existing structure, his improvisations are based on linear, thematic development, spinning out open-ended, spontaneous compositions that have their own rigorous and indisputable internal logic.

Since the mid-70s, with Prime Time and its immediate predecessors, this method began to give way to a more fragmented style, the edgy but elegant depth of emotion being replaced by an intensely agitated feel that sometimes seems to cloak an element of desperation. His 1987 double album, In All Languages, featured one disc by a re-formed version of the classic late 50s/early 60s quartet, and one by Prime Time, with most themes common to both records, and is an ideal crash-course in Coleman’s evolution. As a composer he has written a number of durable themes, such as ‘Beauty Is A Rare Thing’, ‘Focus On Sanity’, ‘Ramblin’’, ‘Sadness’, ‘When Will The Blues Leave’, ‘Tears Inside’ and the ravishing ‘Lonely Woman’ as well as the massive and rather baffling suite Skies Of America written for his group and a symphony orchestra.

Into the new millennium Coleman turned increasingly to his notated musics, writing a series of chamber and solo pieces that, excepting Prime Time’s Time Design (for string quartet and percussion), remain unrecorded. In 2007, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music for the previous year’s live recording Sound Grammar. The same year he was honoured with a Grammy award for lifetime achievement.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.