When Ornette Coleman made his 1959 New York debut, performing a long engagement with his quartet at Lower Manhattan’s Five Spot Cafe, the city’s jazz community made its way to him. Coleman was the talk of the town before he’d played a note there: Advance word proclaimed that the young alto saxophonist from Los Angeles (by way of Fort Worth) had a radical conception of jazz, as evidenced by the title of his third and latest record, “The Shape of Jazz to Come.”
To say his New York reception was controversial is to put it mildly: According to Coleman biographer John Litweiler, legendary drummer Max Roach walked up to Coleman after the gig and punched the saxophonist in the mouth.
But Coleman — who died Thursday morning at 85 — was on to something, and other jazz musicians knew it. His approach, which would soon be known as “free jazz,” a genre so named after a 1960 Coleman album, sought to cut through the complicated conventions of rhythm, melody, harmony and form that had built up in jazz. “We used to talk about it as ‘playing music as if you’ve never heard music before,’ ” bassist Charlie Haden, Coleman’s longtime collaborator, recalled in Ken Burns’ documentary miniseries “Jazz.”
It was a raw, organic idea that touched a nerve with veterans (Lionel Hampton, the great swing-era vibraphonist, was captivated) and especially with younger musicians who were hungry for new ideas.
By the end of the 1960s, Coleman’s music had gone from a polarizing force in jazz to an inseparable part of its DNA. Free jazz had become a movement, but it wasn’t just radicals who were experimenting with it. Even some of those who had once shaken their head at Coleman, such as trumpeter Miles Davis, were incorporating his ideas into their playing.
Coleman was arguably the last jazz innovator to completely reinvent the music. Like New Orleans-style trumpeter Louis Armstrong and bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker before him (as well as pianist Thelonious Monk, one of Coleman’s most profound influences), he offered a new idea of what jazz, and perhaps even music itself, could be. Even its most basic elements, he submitted, could be designed spontaneously and without obedience to the rules of “music theory.”
This was never as chaotic as it sounds. Coleman wanted to escape from the rules but made rules of his own: His playing was always steeped in the blues that he’d absorbed during his upbringing as an African American in Texas, and the compositions that framed his improvisations were deliriously melodic. (“Clearly, ‘free form’ meant, not ‘free from form, but ‘free to create form,’ ” wrote Litweiler.) Because of those traits, even the likes of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, known for his traditionalist views on jazz and distaste for its avant-garde, sang Coleman’s praises.
Coleman did not recast the music singlehandedly. Other musicians, including pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonists Albert Ayler and John Coltrane, also contributed to the revolution. But Coleman was its trailblazer, its essential visionary. (Coltrane, who is sometimes named as jazz’s last revolutionary leader, recorded Coleman’s compositions — with members of Coleman’s band — on the way to his own breakthrough.)
Some innovators are satisfied to reinvent the wheel once. Not Coleman; he kept experimenting and making breakthroughs. He began working with orchestras and classical ensembles in the 1960s, and in 1972 premiered a symphony of sorts called “Skies of America.” He also went to Morocco to work with the storied Master Musicians of Jajouka. But he soon pivoted to the electric “jazz fusion” sounds that had become trendy; he reinvented this, too, as a fearsome, at times cacophonous, relentlessly funky sound. Coleman called the band of this period Prime Time, and the concepts behind the sound itself “the Harmolodic Theory.” He would continue working with both for the rest of his life.
But if Coleman’s status as a revolutionary was secure, he never acted the part. The fire, subversion and restless spirit of his music was offset by a gentle, almost unbearably soft-spoken, tremendously kindhearted personal demeanor; only the loud colors of the suits he liked to wear suggested a firebrand personality.
When he spoke, his ideas were often ethereal, more often inscrutable — though you could feel as if you almost understood them. Asked in 2008 for an explanation of “harmolodics” by Josh Jackson on WBGO radio in Newark, Coleman spun a response involving language, God, sex and reproduction, class, race, anatomy, and the nature of both humanity and sound itself. When Jackson asked a clarifying question, Coleman replied, “Now we are getting into the real depth of what knowledge cannot become.”
Yet even here he was onto something. Coleman believed that sound and music, liberated from their constraints, could in turn act as the equalizer and liberator for human emotions and spirit, perhaps for the cosmos. Hundreds of musicians, consciously and unconsciously, have learned from and aspired to that example.
Going on 60 years after his New York breakthrough, and now even with his departure, the world’s jazz community continues to make its way to him.
West is a freelance writer.