100 Jazz Profiles
1930 - present
Saxophonist, trumpeter, violinist. One of the five great innovators in jazz after Armstrong, Parker, Davis and Coltrane, Coleman has always been identified with the 'free jazz' movement of the 1960s, after the album of that name which he recorded in December 1960.
In fact, that startling double quartet disc is unrepresentative of Ornette's work, which has always been strong on melody, and is underpinned by conventional rhythms and clear ideas about song structure. What Coleman pioneered in his quartet of the late 1950s was the idea of improvising without chord changes - he has been accurately described by pianist Paul Bley as the 'missing link' between bebop and the totally free jazz of the 1960s 'New Thing'.
His career began in his native Texas, and as a teenager he played in rhythm and blues bands, touring the South and to California. He settled in Los Angeles, and set about teaching himself more about modern jazz and harmony.
By the late 1950s he was working regularly there with trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins, who became his first great quartet. Their records caused great controversy, but pieces like Ramblin', Una Muy Bonita and Lonely Woman became landmarks of a new type of jazz, where the improviser used the melodic line itself as the basis for improvising, rather than the underlying harmony.
The band created a sensation when it opened at the Five Spot in New York, audiences alternately thrilled and appalled by the band's microtonal pitching, its unconventional repertoire and Ornette's own plangent, bluesy style. In the 1960s, after a period out of the limelight, he formed a trio with bass and drums, and began playing trumpet and violin as well as alto.
Later with saxophonist Dewey Redman in the front line he led a quartet, which also included his son Denardo Coleman on drums, who has remained a constant musical associate since. In the 1970s, Coleman recorded with the Moroccan Master Musicians of Jajouka, and also formed his fusion band Prime Time.
In all this he underpinned his music with a theory he called 'Harmolodics'. He put the same ideas into practice in his large orchestral works (notably Skies of America) and his pieces for various chamber groups. In the 21st century he has continued to front a trio with Denardo and bassist Charnett Moffett, but he has also worked with pianists Geri Allen and Joachim Kuhn.
His music never stands still, although his own playing style is immediately identifiable. In 2000 and 2001, he appeared with his trio and a symphony orchestra playing Howard Shore's score for the film Naked Lunch, which was back-projected at the concerts.
Peter Niklas Wilson: Ornette Coleman - His Life and Music (Berkeley, Berkeley Hills Books) 1999
John Litweiler: Ornette Coleman - The Harmolodic Life (London, Quartet) 1992
Beauty Is A Rare Thing (Rhino R2 71410) (6CD set of all Ornette's Atlantic discs)
Suggested track: Ramblin'
Ornette Coleman's own site
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