Jazz saxophonist, violinist, trumpeter, and composer Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on March 19, 1930. He was the son of Randolph and Rosa Coleman, both apparently from Calvert, Texas. His father died when he was seven. Ornette, largely self-taught, began playing the saxophone when he was about fourteen years old. In Fort Worth, Coleman attended I. M. Terrell, the city’s one black high school, where he met a number of future jazz musicians, including Charles Moffett, Dewey Redman, Prince Lasha, and John Carter, who would all later record either with Coleman or with other Texans. Coleman and his fellow students were all impressed by a local saxophonist named Red Connors, and according to Coleman, Connors stressed to him the importance of reading music. In high school Coleman formed part of a band called the Jam Jivers that gave him a chance to perform for assemblies and dances. The city itself afforded him frequent opportunities to hear popular bands during the 1940s and to sit in with touring groups, one of which, the Silas Green minstrel troupe from New Orleans, he would join in 1949. Before leaving with Green, Coleman had gathered with local musicians and worked in the bebop vein, the 1940s form of jazz that he had first heard in New York City when, in 1945, he had traveled there to visit an aunt.
In 1950, after stints with the Green tent show and two other outfits—those of blues singer Clarence Samuels and of blues-singer-guitarist Pee Wee Crayton—Coleman played for four months in a rhythm-and-blues band in Amarillo, before returning to Fort Worth, where he joined Crayton again and traveled for the first time to Los Angeles. When it proved that in Los Angeles there was no work for the band or for Coleman after the band had dispersed, he returned once again to Fort Worth in 1952, but the next year he decided to give Los Angeles another chance and it was then and there that he began his career as the most revolutionary figure in jazz since the creation of bebop by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
After leaving the Samuels band, Coleman had played in New Orleans with Crescent City drummer Ed Blackwell, and later on his first visit to Los Angeles he met up with Blackwell again. When Coleman returned to Los Angeles in 1953, the two men rented a house together in Watts and began practicing daily, developing Coleman’s form of jazz to which he gave the name “harmolodics,” from its emphasis on harmony and melody rather than on the traditional chord structure. According to critic A.B. Spellman, Coleman’s main contribution to jazz was rhythmic in nature, even though others have considered tonality his principal legacy. As Spellman wrote in the introduction to his book Four Lives in the Bebop Business (1966), Coleman “is firmly rooted in the tradition of his people. Once past his radical innovations in tone and tonality, one can hear shuffles, stomps, hollers, and certainly blues in his music. To put it another way, once you get past the complexity of it, this is relatively simple music; and the same can be said of Ornette’s personality....Ornette is a superior craftsman...and he does not value music for the sake of artifice but for what it can get off his chest.” In Spellman’s introduction to the 2004 edition of his book, retitled Four Jazz Lives, he reports that for Coleman himself harmolodics is “a concept of sound and feeling that a person can adapt to his instrument the same way that an alphabet can make understandable words, then phrases, then complete statements.”
In 1954 Coleman married Jayne Cortez, a poet. They had one son, but after several years the couple separated, and eventually they divorced in 1964.
During Coleman’s tours with the minstrel and blues bands, the leaders of those groups, other band members, and the public criticized his freer, blues-based, keening mode of playing, which his trumpeter Don Cherry later compared to a horse’s whinny. Coleman was seriously injured in Baton Rouge at a dancehall by patrons who beat him up and smashed his saxophone because he inserted some of his free-style jazz into a blues performance. In Los Angeles he and Ed Blackwell could rarely find jobs as musicians or find a bassist who would work with them. When Coleman would play half a step above a key and would not perform a piece the same way twice, his fellow musicians felt that he did not really know or understand music and that he played out of tune. But eventually Coleman gathered around him a sympathetic group of musicians and formed his first important unit: Don Cherry, trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; and Billy Higgins, drums, all three at the time under twenty years of age. In 1959 this quartet recorded the seminal albums entitled The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century (released in 1960). Ed Blackwell, who had returned to New Orleans, would later replace or join Higgins for the 1960 quartet or double quartet recording sessions that produced other vital albums: This Is Our Music; Free Jazz; and Ornette! Prior to those sessions, Coleman had recorded in 1958 and 1959 with Cherry and a different bassist, drummer, and piano. On his first two albums, Something Else!!!! (1958) and Tomorrow Is the Question! (1959), Coleman’s music was clearly distinctive, but the performances from those first two recording sessions lacked the kind of cohesion and freedom that became the hallmark of his later groups. Also, subsequent recordings by his groups eliminated the piano as too restrictive in its chord-based tendencies, although in Coleman’s 1996 quartet for his album Sound Museum he included the compatible pianist Geri Allen. The ability of the Cherry, Haden, Higgins, and Blackwell units to respond to Coleman’s formal but free musical conception with their own individual voices made possible the creation of a truly new kind of jazz.
In 1959 the Coleman quartet of Cherry, Haden, and Higgins performed at the Five Spot in New York City, and this appearance introduced Coleman’s music to many of the major jazz musicians and critics of the period. Even though the quartet’s performance brought critical recognition, there were still detractors who rejected Coleman’s music as too off-the-wall and even as a fraud. The group also suffered from a lower rate of pay that made it difficult to survive in New York’s expensive setting. By 1962 Coleman had stopped performing because club owners would not meet his demands for a fair wage. In the winter of 1962, he rented the city’s Town Hall and gave a concert of a composition of his for string quartet and a work for rhythm-and-blues band and jazz trio, as well as his piece entitled “The Ark,” a twenty-three-minute-plus performance by his trio, with himself on sax, Charles Moffett on drums, and David Izenson on bass. Spellman asserts that at the time the rhythm-and-blues and jazz trio performance stood, along with Coleman’s Free Jazz album, “as one of the two most important works that he ha[d] ever performed.” The critic goes on to say that the interplay between the rhythm-and-blues group and the trio should have made all other groups “concerned with enlarging their forms” stop and “re-evaluate their music”; he adds that “Ornette’s solo included everything that he had learned since his early Texas days.” The 1960 recording of Coleman’s Free Jazz had featured a double quartet, composed of Coleman, Cherry, Haden, Higgins, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy, bassist Scott LaFaro, and drummer Ed Blackwell. On this work the musicians perform in the tradition of early jazz in which a six- or seven-piece group of trumpet or trumpets, clarinet, trombone, drums, banjo, and piano would improvise simultaneously. In the case of the Coleman double quartet’s recording, this is a thirty-eight-minute collective improvisation that critic Martin Williams would declare “has the stuff of life in it as no other recorded performance I know of.” The music of Free Jazz is aurally comparable to the visual effect of a Jackson Pollock painting, and the album cover in fact reproduced that artist’s free-style, drip composition entitled White Light.
During the next three years, Coleman did not perform in nightclubs, but he spent the time teaching himself to play the violin and trumpet. In 1965 he and his trio of Moffett and Izenson undertook a two-week tour of Europe, beginning in England and continuing on to Sweden where they recorded a two-volume album, The Ornette Coleman Trio at the “Golden Circle.” On this extraordinary recording, Coleman performed on alto sax, trumpet, and violin, and his drummer and bassist contributed brilliantly to the overall emotional and intellectual impact of the music. For the next more than forty years, Coleman recorded innumerable albums and performed with countless groups in France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Morocco, across the U.S., and in Argentina and Chile. He was honored in Down Beat’s Jazz Hall of Fame in 1969. He also received two Guggenheim fellowships (1967, 1972).
In 1975 Coleman recorded Dancing In Your Head with his group known as Prime Time (a jazz rock ensemble), with Fort Worth drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, and with this same group he opened Caravan of Dreams, a venue in Fort Worth with a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome. In 1983 the mayor of Coleman’s birthplace presented to its native son the keys to the city and the Fort Worth Symphony performed his Skies of America. In 1985 filmmaker Shirley Clarke released her video Ornette: Made in America on Coleman’s life and music. In 1994 Coleman was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, and in 2001 he received in Paris the Praemium Imperiale of the Japan Art Association. In 2007 Coleman’s album Sound Grammar, with Denardo Coleman (his son by poet Jayne Cortez) as the drummer and Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga on bass, won only the second Pulitzer Prize ever given to a jazz musician.
In speaking on music or the work of his hero Buckminster Fuller, Coleman was impressively trenchant, especially in his comments to A.B. Spellman, as well as in such notes as those on the album cover of Sound Grammar: “Sound has a specific meaning when used in different dialects. The culture of civilization when expressed in different tongues identifies the differences. The conclusion is that the Grammar of Sound is universal.” In discussing with Spellman the difficulties for an artist that come from depending on others (“some wealthy middleman”), Coleman asserted that “If you’ve got to do something and you feel that it’s just a matter of being tired of waiting for someone to come along and give you the chance to do it, don’t wait for that. Go out and do it for yourself.” At the age of eighty-five, after having gone his own way and having become one of the most original jazz musicians in the history of the music, Ornette Coleman died in New York City on June 11, 2015.