Ornette Coleman, whose “free jazz” performances were praised and condemned in equal measure but who came to be recognized as one of the most original and innovative forces in modern music, rewarded late in his career with the Pulitzer Prize and a lifetime achievement Grammy Award, died Thursday in New York City. He was 85.
His death was announced by a publicist, Ken Weinstein. The cause was not disclosed.
Mr. Coleman was an alto saxophonist and composer who emerged from obscurity in 1959 with the album “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” which had a revolutionary effect. With his band, which included several future stars, he abandoned the traditional structure of jazz rhythm and harmony to create an unorthodox aesthetic of musical freedom.
In 1960, Mr. Coleman released an album called “Free Jazz,” on which two separate groups played at the same time. The phrase came to represent a new musical school marked by a spontaneous, sometimes frenetic sense of improvisation, and Mr. Coleman was seen as its leading practitioner.
He eventually described his work as “harmolodics” — a combination of harmony, movement and melodic motifs into a fluid, untethered music evolving from a central idea.
“In most jazz settings,” he told London’s Independent newspaper in 1993, “there has always been the person who stands in front and the other guys back him up, like a singer. But in harmolodics, everyone comes to the front.”
Between 1958 and 1962, Mr. Coleman released 10 albums that had a profound influence on jazz musicians such as John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler, as well as on later artists, including punk bands and classical composers. Several of his early compositions, including “Peace,” “Lonely Woman” and “Turnaround,” have become jazz standards.
From the beginning, however, there were no neutral views of Mr. Coleman and his music: He was considered either a prophetic genius or a charlatan.
“No musician has ever roiled the jazz establishment quite as much as Coleman,” critic Gary Giddins wrote in the New Yorker in 2008. “Even now . . . listening to Coleman can be a bracing experience for the uninitiated.”
Many people, including his fellow musicians, could not grasp the boundary-bending, often dissonant, sounds coming from Mr. Coleman’s saxophone and his bandmates. After one performance, drummer Max Roach reportedly punched him in the mouth. Trumpeter Miles Davis openly questioned Mr. Coleman’s sanity. Another jazz star, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, told Esquire magazine in 1961, “I think he’s jiving, baby.”
But Mr. Coleman also had many admirers, including conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, as well as writer and classical composer Virgil Thomson. Pianist John Lewis, a founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet, called Mr. Coleman the most important jazz musician since Charlie Parker.
In time, Mr. Coleman reached beyond jazz into other musical forms as a one-man avant-garde. He occasionally played trumpet and violin and, in the 1970s and 1980s, began to explore electronic and funk styles. He composed for various small-jazz ensembles and chamber groups. His 1972 symphonic composition, “Skies of America,” has entered the classical repertoire.
Mr. Coleman borrowed from various international traditions, including Mexican mariachi and Moroccan folk music. He performed in concert with the Grateful Dead, released an album with guitarist Pat Metheny and was featured in European and Japanese festivals devoted to his
He belatedly found acceptance in the United States, evidenced by multiple concerts at New York’s Lincoln Center. He was named a jazz master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1984 and received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1994.
His 2006 album, “Sound Grammar,” which drew on sources as diverse as Igor Stravinsky and the blues, received the Pulitzer Prize for music composition in 2007. The same year, Mr. Coleman was honored with more than 30 other musicians at the Kennedy Center as “living jazz legends.”
He also received a Grammy for lifetime achievement — even though none of his recordings ever received an individual
“Like the best revolutionists,” jazz critic Whitney Balliett wrote in the New Yorker in 1965, “he was a highbrow disguised as a primitive. He was a largely untutored musician who, with one leap, passed directly from the past (Charlie Parker, country blues, rock-and-roll) into the unknown.”
Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman was born March 9, 1930, in Fort Worth. He was a child when his father died, and his mother was a seamstress and domestic worker.
He began to play saxophone in his teens and, according to biographer John Litweiler, was reprimanded for improvising during his school band’s performance of John Philip Sousa’s “The Washington Post” march.
Mr. Coleman joined traveling rhythm-and-blues groups in his native Texas and, even in his teens, sought to be iconoclastic in his music and his appearance. As early as 1950, he wore his hair to his shoulders and played offbeat solos that provoked confusion and dismay in listeners. After one performance in Louisiana, he was reportedly beaten by a mob, members of which threw his saxophone off a cliff.
In the early 1950s, Mr. Coleman settled in Los Angeles, where he worked as an elevator operator and embarked on an independent study of music. His alto saxophone was made of plastic. When he tried to sit in at jam sessions, Mr. Coleman was often mocked or ignored by more established musicians.
But he persevered, finding ways to produce microtones on his saxophone that defied the standard notions of pitch and key.
“Perhaps the chief impediment to greater popularity,” Giddins wrote in the New Yorker, “is the very quality that centers his achievement: the raw, rugged, vocalized, weirdly pitched sound of his alto saxophone. Considered uniquely, radiantly beautiful by fans, it is like no other sound in or out of jazz.”
Soft-spoken but quietly persuasive in his approach to music, Mr. Coleman gathered a group of like-minded musicians, including trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, who formed the nucleus of his early bands.
Even though Mr. Coleman received the first Guggenheim fellowship for jazz composition in 1967, he struggled for years to gain recognition. It wasn’t until the 1980s that he became firmly established, with festivals, documentary films and musical tributes commemorating his achievements.
His marriage to poet Jayne Cortez ended in divorce. Their son, Denardo Coleman, became his father’s drummer at the age of 10 and worked with him until the end. Mr. Coleman continued to write and perform music until shortly before his death.
He may have been the father of “free jazz,” but his conception of the music was more controlled than the unchanneled blips and screeches that later became synonymous with the style. There was something consciously composed and purposeful about Mr. Coleman’s music, even as it flowed in unexpected directions.
He never wrote for the masses, but the strange beauty of his music continues to exert a haunting, ever-deepening influence over the sound of our time.
“When he is out of tune with the rest of the musical world,” Giddins wrote of Mr. Coleman, “he is always in tune with himself.”