Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Coleman, Ornette (Randolph Denard)

Ornette Coleman is a musical iconoclast whose journey led him from Texas R&B bands to MacArthur, Pulitzer, NEA and Guggenheim awards for composition, with many surprises along the way. Coleman has spent his lifetime seeking that most prized quality in jazz: freedom.

Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman was born on March of 1930 or 1931 in Fort Worth, Texas. He first heard swing music on the radio. When a touring band played at his school, he became fascinated by the sound of saxophones.

At age fourteen, he bought an alto with money he had saved. Since he could not afford lessons, he was largely self-taught. In high school, Coleman met other Fort Worth musicians, many of whom became lifelong friends and associates, including drummer Charles Moffett, saxophonists John Carter, William “Prince” Lasha, King Curtis, and Dewey Redman.

Coleman spent several years playing on the road with R&B bands, during which he was harassed, beaten and fired for his unorthodox playing and appearance. In 1949, Coleman decided to start his own band in Fort Worth. This band was unsuccessful, so he moved to Los Angeles, where he purchased the white plastic alto saxophone that would become his trademark, a Grafton. He lived there with a drummer he had met in New Orleans, Ed Blackwell, but many of the West Coast musicians he first met were unreceptive to his approach to music.

In 1954, Coleman met and married poet Jayne Cortez, an avid jazz fan. The couple’s son, Denardo Ornette Coleman, was born in 1956, and by age ten he played drums in his father’s bands. Cortez knew many musicians, and introduced Ornette to trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins, both of whom were excited by the saxophonist’s innovative approach. Coleman recorded for the first time with these musicians and other noted West Coast beboppers for Contemporary Records in 1958.

Later that year, Coleman and Cherry joined Paul Bley’s group at the Hillcrest Club, where they met bassist Charlie Haden. After this gig, a nucleus of like-minded, progressive musicians was formed: Coleman, Cherry, Haden, and Higgins, later joined by Ed Blackwell.

Pianist John Lewis was an early advocate of Coleman’s style, and got the band a recording date with Atlantic Records. The group’s first session, recorded in Los Angeles in May of 1959, was unsubtly titled The Shape of Jazz to Come and contained Coleman originals including “Lonely Woman,” with a haunting, floating melody and driving underlying rhythm. A second session in October of 1959 produced “Forerunner” and “Ramblin’,” which featured a beautifully melodic bass solo by Haden.

In November of 1959, the quartet landed a gig at New York’s Five Spot cafe. The band’s music at these gigs created quite a stir amongst musicians: Leonard Bernstein praised the band’s progressive qualities, while Benny Goodman and Roy Eldridge publicly denounced the music. Either way, the group drew in a big crowd, and the gig was extended from two weeks to two and a half months.

In August of 1960, Coleman assembled a double quartet to record the LP Free Jazz, with Coleman, Cherry, bassist Scott LaFaro, and Higgins in one channel of the stereo recording and bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, Haden, and Blackwell in the other. Coleman had composed some backgrounds and introductions for the musicians but not much else, and one can hear the freedom Coleman gives them in the contrasts among musicians and between the two quartets. The session’s title was later adopted to describe the new genre that adopted its approach to improvisation and composition: free jazz.

Coleman’s next group included bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett. He became increasingly frustrated with New York jazz clubs and their erratic and sometimes racist pay practices. He complained publicly that he was not getting paid even half as much as Dave Brubeck’s quartet, but was drawing at least twice the crowds. He would often turn down a nightclub gig if it didn’t pay as much as he hoped. He also grew weary of playing for rowdy, drunken crowds who were not interested in the particulars of his music.

To address this situation, he booked a concert of his own music at New York’s Town Hall in December of 1962. This trio performance with Izenzon, and Moffett exhibits the group’s decreasing reliance on a regular pulse to propel the music, coupled with an increasingly abstract relation among the three parts. Coleman also performed a blues-based piece he composed for alto, guitar, piano, two basses and drums, and a string quartet performed Coleman’s “Dedication to Poets and Writers.” The concert, funded largely by Coleman himself, broke even, but aesthetically, it was a showcase for Coleman’s complex music that proved he could develop his ideas in a number of different ways.

Coleman then took an almost three-year break from recording and touring. In that time, he began to teach himself trumpet and violin and honed his orchestral writing skills. He returned to performing in January of 1965, in a trio at New York’s Village Vanguard. The trio also began performing and recording in Europe, including a stint at the Golden Circle in Stockholm, recorded for Blue Note. Other dates in Europe added Haden as the second bassist. Coleman received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1967, the first ever granted for jazz composition, and his group performed at John Coltrane’s funeral on July 21. Later that year, Coleman caught up with another friend from Fort Worth, Dewey Redman, who had recently moved to New York. The two formed a quartet with bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones, both former Coltrane sidemen.

This group recorded two sessions for Blue Note, Love Call and New York is Now! in 1968, which includes “Broadway Blues.” Coltrane’s rhythm section didn’t quite gel with Coleman and Redman, but the quartet manages to convey a sense of energy and even urgency on these dates.

In 1970, Coleman opened Artists House at 131 Prince St. in New York’s West Village, intended to serve as a studio, performance and living space for artists of all kinds. Residents of Artists House included multi-instrumentalist and composer Anthony Braxton, violinist Leroy Jenkins, and Coleman’s sister, Truvenza, who had moved to New York to further her singing career. The Artists House was one of the many informal spaces that defined New York’s “downtown loft scene” in the 1970s, all of which offered more performance opportunities to those devoted to playing in the unconventional style.

In 1972, Coleman recorded his dense, melodic orchestral work Skies of America with the London Symphony and his quartet. Coleman first used the term “harmolodics” to describe his music in the liner notes to Skies of America. Harmolodics, he explains, is a combination of the words “harmony,” “melody,” and “movement.” Improvisers should move away from playing the “backgrounds,” as he calls the chord changes and support of the rhythm section, and instead enter into a musical conversation in which all voices are equal.

For Coleman, this method of improvising requires discipline and attentive listening, but it results in greater freedom of expression for everyone involved. For the orchestra playing Skies, it meant that regardless of an instrument’s played pitch, musicians were asked to read from the same written melody, and transpose. This structure is in part responsible for the rich and constantly shifting harmonic textures of the piece.

In January of 1973, Coleman traveled to Morocco to meet and play with the Master Musicians of Joujouka at their annual festival. He composed and recorded some pieces for the musicians, one of which, “Midnight Sunrise,” appears on the LP Dancing in Your Head. In 1975, after the other members of his groups had moved on to other gigs, he met guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer and began gathering musicians who shared his own varied musical background: they came from R&B, funk, and various forms of jazz.

Coleman added bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Charles Ellerbee, a disco guitarist, and Ronald Shannon Jackson, who had played drums with Albert Ayler, to the group. He later added guitarist Bern Nix and Denardo on drums. He called this group Prime Time, which was also the name of their first album, and they combined Coleman’s harmolodics with funk and disco sensibilities. Coleman was fascinated by the tonal and textural possibilities of electric guitars, and used them throughout the band’s repertoire.

Prime Time continued to record and perform throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including a recording with the Fort Worth Symphony in September of 1983 for the opening of the Caravan of Dreams arts complex. Prior to this concert, the mayor of Fort Worth gave Coleman the key to the city and declared the day “Ornette Coleman Day.” In 1988, Grateful Dead guitarist and Coleman fan Jerry Garcia recorded with Prime Time for the album Virgin Beauty. “Spelling the Alphabet” is a brief but intense taste of this collaboration.

In 1985, Coleman, at the urging of Haden, met and recorded with guitarist Pat Metheny. Metheny was a longtime fan of Coleman’s music, and rehearsed with Coleman, Haden, Denardo (who was now Coleman’s manager), and drummer Jack DeJohnette for three weeks before recording the tracks on Song X, including the burning collective improvisation of the title track.

In 1994, Coleman received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and started his own music label, Harmolodic. The first album released on his new label was his own, Tone Dialing, featuring a completely new lineup of Prime Time. In 1996, he recorded with German pianist Joachim Kuhn for a duet CD, Colors, featuring the track, “House of Stained Glass.” Throughout the 1990s Coleman broadened his approach to include music and musicians from all over the world, and he performed more and more often with dancers and visual artists.

In 2006, Coleman’s new quartet featured Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga on basses and Denardo on drums, harkening back to his mid-1960’s quartet. The group’s only album to date, Sound Grammar, was recorded in Germany in 2005. The record received much critical praise and helped earn Coleman a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2007 as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Music in that same year, the first time that prestigious award has been given to an artist for a recording, rather than a musical composition.

Mainstream recognition has not dimmed Coleman’s passion to achieve free expression as an artist, and by now his example has inspired several generations of musicians to seek their own brand of freedom.

Selected Bibliography

Coleman, Ornette. Beauty is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings. Robert Palmer, liner notes. Rhino, 1993. Coleman, Ornette. Something Else! The Music of Ornette Coleman. Nat Hentoff, liner notes. CD release, 1988. Litweiler, John. The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958. New York: Da Capo, 1984. Litweiler, John. Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life. New York: Da Capo, 1992. Spellman, A.B. Four Jazz Lives. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2004. Wilson, Peter Niklas. Ornette Coleman: His Life and Music. Berkeley Hills Books, 1999.

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Contributor: Pete Williams