Ornette Coleman

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About Ornette Coleman

Few figures have altered the course of jazz—and music in general—as much as saxophonist, composer, bandleader, and thinker Ornette Coleman, who famously rejected harmony-based conceptions in order to allow his melodic ideas to drive his work. He is widely considered the creator of free jazz. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1930, Coleman gravitated to R&B and bebop as a teenager, but early on his unorthodox musical ideas caused trouble, including physical attacks, so in 1953 he settled in Los Angeles, where he soon found sympathetic bandmates in double bassist Charlie Haden, trumpeter Don Cherry, and drummer Billy Higgins. Coleman’s bluesy compositions sparkled with melodic vitality, embracing the rhythmic vocabulary of bebop, but his disinterest in conventional harmony rankled musicians and listeners in a way that’s hard to comprehend these days. With his third album The Shape of Jazz to Come, released in 1959 by Atlantic Records, he gave his first performances in New York City, where he soon moved. In 1960 he recorded Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, a single piece played by a double quartet using only simple fanfare-like themes. While Coleman opened the floodgates of free expression in improvised music, he moved on, working with various ensembles throughout the 1960s, expanding his palette with violin and trumpet, and helping to establish the agency of jazz musicians to earn greater fees by boycotting New York’s club system. In the 1970s he wrote and recorded the orchestral piece Skies of America and formed an electric band, Prime Time, which collided his ideas with rock and funk. Coleman continued to record and perform publicly, while generously working with up-and-coming musicians in his home, until his death in 2015 from a heart attack at age 85.

Fort Worth, TX, United States
March 9, 1930
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