Personalities | Ornette Coleman | Sixties | Jazz & Blues

Since his emergence in the mid-1950s, alto saxophonist and creative composer Ornette Coleman has risen above controversy to become a respected elder statesman of jazz. Born in 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas, Coleman taught himself the saxophone through trial and error.

By avoiding chord structures and set rhythms in favour of melodic experimentation, he developed the new style of ‘free jazz’. He dubbed his controversial theory ‘harmolodics’ – a combination of harmony, motion and melody. Coleman’s characteristic tone and his variety of intonation effects often recall a plaintive human voice, touched by the blues.

Breaking New Ground

Coleman received his first saxophone at the age of seven. As he found his way around the horn, Coleman developed notions about music that clashed with traditional practices but remained permanent parts of his artistic philosophy. Four years after beginning his career at the age of 15 with an R&B group, Coleman took to the road and encountered hostility from musicians and audiences who appreciated neither his bebop alterations nor his unkempt appearance. However, bandleaders admired his songwriting abilities and assigned him to refresh their books of blues-related pieces.

In 1956 Coleman found himself unemployed in Los Angeles, where he met some like-minded musicians who were interested in his new concepts. His circle included trumpeters Don Cherry and Bobby Bradford, bassist Don Payne, drummer Billy Higgins and Canadian-born pianist Paul Bley, under whose name they performed at the Hillcrest Club. Recordings of those exciting gigs were released years later by Bley’s IAI record label.

In 1958 bassist Red Mitchell brought one of Coleman’s compositions to Contemporary Records boss Lester Koenig, who signed Coleman to a contract. Coleman and Cherry had developed a loose, intuitive ensemble sound, evident on several Coleman compositions such as ‘When Will The Blues Leave’ and ‘The Blessing’, backed somewhat uneasily by Payne and Higgins. Coleman’s second Contemporary release featured another sheaf of originals, including ‘Tears Inside’ and ‘Rejoicing’. The session’s drummer was big-band veteran and LA jazz-club operator Shelly Manne. Open-minded, responsive pianist Walter Norris interpreted Coleman’s compositions creatively, but the altoist later remarked that the piano’s chordal, tempered nature was incompatible with the melody-driven freedom that he sought.

The Birth Of Free Jazz

In 1959 Coleman, Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell moved to New York, where they impressed composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein. Coleman continued to experiment with different ensembles and ideas, few as well-received as his famous quartet. In 1960 he recorded the landmark Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation By The Ornette Coleman Double Quartet for Atlantic Records. It consisted of one long group improvisation, punctuated by a few composed reference points. The performers – Coleman, Cherry, Haden, Blackwell, Higgins, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet and second bassist Scott LaFaro (who died prematurely in a car accident seven months after the session) – interacted continuously, as individuals and also as an ensemble.

Further Innovations

Following Free Jazz, Coleman experimented with a new trio. He took...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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