Jazz great Ornette Coleman broke all the rules

Influential Pulitzer Prize–winning saxophonist challenged musical conventions and divided audiences but won fierce fans

Innovative saxophonist Ornette Coleman at the Newport Jazz Festival, circa 1970. The jazz great died June 11, 2015, at 85.
David Redfern / Getty Images

Just over a century ago, a riot broke out in a perfectly respectable Parisian theater. The audience had gone to see the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s scandalous “Rite of Spring.” 

“Innumerable shades of snobbery, supersnobbery and inverted snobbery were represented,” wrote writer, playwright and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. There must have been something in Stravinsky’s primitive rhythms or wanton dissonance that caused the fuss. A double-bass player told the conductor that “many a gentleman’s shiny top hat or soft fedora was ignominiously pulled down by an opponent over his eyes and ears, and canes were brandished like menacing implements of combat all over the theater.” 

We wonder now what the fuss was about, just as we might wonder why Ornette Coleman’s quartet caused so much upset in the music world of the late 1950s. Jazz fans, already used to the angular, reactionary sounds of bebop, were sharply divided.

“Some walked in and out before they could finish a drink,” remembered Downbeat jazz critic George Hoefer of a Coleman performance, “some sat mesmerized by the sound, others talked constantly to their neighbors at the table or argued with drink in hand at the bar.”

Coleman in 1959. His quartet upset some in the jazz world in the late 1950s.
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman died Thursday morning in Manhattan. He was 85. With his compositions and novel approach to the alto saxophone, he was an innovator of a kind seldom seen. He understood the rules well enough to break them — dismiss them, really, as he breezed past accepted Western modality and harmony. He is acknowledged as an early exponent of free jazz, though the term is insufficient to the man’s efforts and ability. What Coleman did, almost single-handedly, was invent an approach to music that gave voice to the most individuated self and used this as a foundation for the most honest kind of collaboration. “I don’t want them to follow me,” he once said of his musical partners. “I want them to follow themselves but to be with me.”

Coleman was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1930. Red Connor, a tenor saxophonist who attended the same high school, influenced Coleman to play jazz as an idea rather than a pattern. Coleman learned by ear — another early jazz tradition — and started playing rhythm and blues. Things changed in the late 1940s when he heard Charlie Parker’s fierce and precise playing in a new style called bebop, an overdue antidote to the aging swing model. Coleman’s commitment to these new sounds got him fired from a minstrel band and beaten up by fellow musicians.

Coleman moved to Los Angeles in 1953 and struggled to find musicians to play with him. In addition to his increasing musical unorthodoxy, he had become a Jehovah’s Witness, wearing homemade clothes, and according to trumpeter Don Cherry, he “looked like some kind of black Christ figure, but no Christ anybody had ever seen before.”

Even these few years after bebop’s beginnings, Coleman was leaving it behind. “I could play and sound like Charlie Parker note for note,” he once said, “but I was only playing it from method. So I tried to figure out where to go from there.”

A move to New York

By 1959, Coleman had moved to New York. His band, which included Don Cherry and bassist Charlie Haden, began a residency at the Five Spot Café jazz club. He had signed with Atlantic Records and released “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” an album that would set the jazz world on its ear.

It’s instructive to listen to “The Shape of Jazz to Come” at this remove, to wonder both at its freshness and ability to cause a fuss. First off, unlike his “Something Else!!!!: The Music of Ornette Coleman” from 1958, there is no piano and thus no chordal structure. His quartet is a rhythm section (Haden and drummer Billy Higgins) and two leads: Coleman on alto and Cherry on trumpet. The first two minutes of the album’s opening track, “Lonely Woman,” seem designed to frustrate. No amount of snobbery or supersnobbery would help the listener here.

The first 19 seconds belong to the rhythm, with Haden and Higgins playing something portentous if not altogether unexpected. It is, after all, the pleasing thump of a string bass and the gentle attack of brushes on a cymbal. Then the horns suddenly appear, blaring a kind of wandering riff. Someone is noticeably out of tune. Things are as disheveled as they are composed. There are unison parts and wincing dissonances. Then Coleman takes a sort of solo. You can hear direct quotes from sophisticated R&B players like Louis Jordan, right before Coleman overblows his reed, sounding like a pained goose.

The Ornette Coleman Quartet drew a kind of battle line. On one side, jazz luminaries like Lionel Hampton and composer Leonard Bernstein considered him a genius. On the other side, some fellow musicians were dismissive. “I listened to him high, and I listened to him cold sober,” said trumpeter Roy Eldridge. “I even played with him. I think he’s jiving, baby.”

Musically, Coleman had moved on. “They were playing changes. They weren’t playing movements,” he said of his bebop contemporaries, referring to a method of soloing that included notes in the scale of the key or chord progression. “I was trying to play ideas, changes, movements and nontransposed notes.”

In 1961 “Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet” was released, an early example of stereo recording, with instruments jumping and clanging out of the right and left speakers. Intricate phrasing is punctuated by abject shrieks. There is no set key. At times the two drummers are playing at different speeds. The original double gatefold album art featured a painting by Jackson Pollock. After releasing four albums, Atlantic dropped Coleman. But what began as an album title became a genre. To people’s continuing delight and chagrin, free jazz is with us still.

Coleman spent the early part of the 1960s concentrating on composition, before signing with Blue Note in 1965. A decade later, Coleman had abandoned the traditional acoustic jazz instrumentation altogether, releasing “Dancing in Your Head” in 1976, an album which features an all-electric lineup, including tribal musicians from Morocco. “Dancing in Your Head” opens like a demented Captain Beefheart record, if such a thing is possible, striding into the room like a bumbling juggernaut. There is extraordinary accomplishment in its randomness.

Honors and influence

By this time Coleman had invented a term for his musical approach. “Harmolodics” is a philosophy that’s hard to pin down — or perhaps too easy. Sound, as he once noted, “is as free as the gas that passes through your butt.” When an interviewer for The Guardian pressed him to define the term in 2007, Coleman said, “Whatever you want to call it is your problem. To me, sound just is. You can give sound a name, but that doesn’t mean the sound sounds like it.”

By the late 1960s, Coleman had a following that extended beyond jazz’s traditional confines: a young English rock drummer named Robert Wyatt impressed an interviewer in the late 1960s by his ability to scat Coleman solos note for note. Lou Reed was also a fan. “When I started out, I was inspired by people like Ornette Coleman,” he said. “He has always been a great influence.”

Coleman was presented with the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize in 2004, a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2007 and an honorary doctorate in music from the University of Michigan three years later. None of these accolades made him any less of an iconoclast. He never made popular music, because he wasn’t concerned with the collective agreement on what makes music worthwhile. He rejected any orthodoxy, even when, like bebop, it came clothed in revolutionary form. We live in a culture that values innovators, as long as their contribution appears as another rung on the ladder of progress. In this sense, Coleman walked off the job before the last century was even half over.

“I’ve learned that everyone has their own movable C,” he once said, referring to the note that is the tonal center of the piano and to Western music in general. Such ideas will continue to be met with outrage, in Paris opera houses and New York nightclubs alike.

“Music is classless, but races, knowledge and life-condition are not,” Coleman wrote for Downbeat in 1967. “I do not believe in any form of government under which a person cannot be or have the right to be an individual. We all are enjoying the life with which we are constantly trying to improve the thing we find that gives us pleasure.”

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