Saturday, June 5, 2010

Ornette Coleman - The Prophet of Freedom

By Pearl Deans

A Radical Approach

Jazz innovator Ornette Coleman was born March 9, 1930, in Fort Worth Texas, into a poor, working class family. Coleman's father died when he was seven. His seamstress mother worked hard to buy Coleman his first saxophone when he was 14 years old. Teaching himself sight-reading from a how-to piano book, Coleman began playing with local R&B bands before moving on to find work in New Orleans. After a show in Baton Rouge, he was assaulted and his saxophone was destroyed. Coleman played a plastic saxophone from 1954 until he switched to metal in recent years. His white plastic saxophone became a trademark and added to the uniqueness of his sound on his classic early recordings.

Los Angeles Jazz Scene

In 1952, Coleman moved to Los Angeles where he began to study musical theory and formulate a radical approach that he would come to refer to as "harmolodic". His raw, highly vocalized sound and penchant for playing "in the cracks" of the scale led many Los Angeles jazz musicians to regard Coleman's playing as out-of-tune. Eventually, he found a core of musicians who took to his musical concepts: trumpeters Don Cherry and Bobby Bradford, drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, and bassist Charlie Haden.

Early Career

In 1958 Coleman made his recording debut with Something Else!!!!: The Music of Ornette Coleman, on the Contemporary label. According to All Music (an Italian music television network), the album "shook up the jazz world", revitalizing the union of blues and jazz and restoring "blues to their 'classic' beginnings in African music". Something Else!!!! features a conventional quintet, including a piano. The session featured trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Don Payne and Walter Norris on piano. After this album, Coleman would exclude the piano from his ensembles.

The Shape of Jazz to Come

Coleman was busy in 1959, releasing several albums. He signed a multi-album contract with Atlantic Records who released his third album The Shape of Jazz to Come. It was, according to critic Steve Huey, "a watershed event in the genesis of avant-garde jazz, profoundly steering its future course and throwing down a gauntlet that some still have not come to grips with." In The Shape of Jazz to Come, Coleman's signature style broke through-angular melodies and simultaneous group improvisations - what Joe Zawinul referred to as "nobody solos, everybody solos" and what Coleman calls harmolodics. After a period of study at the Lenox School of Jazz, he secured a two-week residency with his new quartet at the Five Spot jazz club in Greenwich Village.

Free Jazz

What started as a two week engagement at the Five Spot eventually became ten weeks, as the word spread about the 29 year old Coleman and his avant-garde jazz. Musicians, critics, and composers who heard Coleman's quartet immediately broke into two camps, pro and con. Some, such as Leonard Bernstein and Lionel Hampton, were favorably impressed; while others denounced him and went so far as to say that Ornette Coleman could not play.

Coleman's next important album, Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, was recorded in 1960. Free Jazz, Coleman's seventh album, featured a double quartet, including Don Cherry and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, Charlie Haden and Scott LaFaro on bass, and both Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell on drums. The original release had a reproduction of one of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, "White Light" on the cover.

Although Coleman only intended "Free Jazz" to be the title of his album, as his reputation grew free jazz became a new music genre. In 1961 Atlantic canceled Coleman's contract. Coleman spent the rest of the sixties teaching himself the trumpet and violin, exploring music outside of jazz, and getting deeper into composing. Coleman started playing with electrified instruments in the 70s. Albums like Of Human Feelings and Virgin Beauty used rock and funk rhythms, sometimes called free funk.


Coleman maintained his explorations of new musical territories throughout the 80s and 90s, collaborating with artists ranging from Pat Metheny to the Kronos Quartet to The Grateful Dead, as well as making further ventures into chamber composition. Ornette Coleman's talent and important contributions to music have often been recognized and rewarded through the years:

  • In 1969, Coleman was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.
  • In 1984, the National Endowment for the Arts honored Ornette Coleman with a Jazz Masters Fellowship, the highest honor that the United States bestows upon jazz musicians.
  • Coleman was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1989.
  • Coleman won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2007 for his 2006 live album titled Sound Grammar.
  • On February 11, 2007, Ornette Coleman was honored with a Grammy award for lifetime achievement.
  • On May 1, 2010, Coleman was awarded an honorary doctorate in Music from the University of Michigan for his musical contributions.
Ornette Coleman has been married and divorced once. He has one child, a son named Denardo Coleman, who is also a jazz musician. Ornette Coleman's nickname is The Prophet of Freedom.

Pearl has been writing articles online for nearly eight years now. She also writes as a guest contributor for which reviews all types of Luxury Cat Beds.

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1 comment:

  1. Shirley Clarke's Ornette: Made in America

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