does a musician emerge who dramatically changes the way we listen
to music, but such a man is Ornette Coleman. Ever since
the late 1950's when he burst on the New York scene, his artistic
vision has helped to expand contemporary musical boundries. Most
people think of Ornette Coleman as the revolutionary saxophonist
who created "free jazz", but in truth, his music and
his approach to making music have always defied simple
Born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1930, Ornette Coleman bought his
first saxophone at the age of 14. Having taught himself how to
play the instrument, he performed with various rhythm and blues
bands and by the time he was nineteen he left Fort Worth to hook
up with Silas Green's traveling minstrel show. It was not until
Coleman joined Pee Wee Crauton's band that he was able to make it
out of the honky-tonks and blues bars of the South. Apparently,
even then, the young saxophonist style was controversial, and
rumor has it that by the time the band reached Los Angeles,
Crayton was paying Coleman not to solo. Bebop ruled jazz in the
1950's and initially while in Los Angeles, Coleman, like
everybody else, playing bebop at jam sessions. "I could
play and sound like Charlie Parker note-for-note, but I was only
playing it from method. So I tried to figure out where to go from
there," Coleman said.
As he started exploring musical possibilities of extending and
fusing elements of honky-tonk, blues, funk, and bebop, Coleman
created personal musical vocabulary free from the prevailing
conventions of harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic structures.
Coleman's musical style so alienated him from the jazz community
that musicians literally walked off stage whenever Coleman showed
up to play. In retrospect, Coleman's innovations, later to be
known as "harmolodics", not only helped to revitalize
jazz by pointing a new direction away from the rigid role of
harmony in bebop, but also established his place in a select
group of major 20th Century American composers, such as Charlie
Parker, Harry Partch, Charles Ives and John Cage.
In Los Angeles during the early 50's Coleman had to support
himself with menial jobs. However, he was fortunate enough to
find a core of talented musicians, trumpeters Don Cherry and
Bobby Bradford, drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, and
bassist Charlie Haden, who embraced his musical concepts.
Although the musicians rarely found opportunities to perform the
music, they spent a great deal of time improvising and
Things changed dramatically for Coleman in 1958 with the release
his debut album, Something Else, and while he could still
be scorned, he could not be ignored. One year later a second
album, Tomorrow is the Question, was released and the
original quartet was firmly established: Coleman on alto sax, Don
Cherry on trumpet, Billy Higgins on drums, and Charlie Haden on
In November of 1959, the quartet made its legendary New York
debut at the Five Spot in Greenwich Village. The music was unlike
anything ever heard before. Since neither bassist or drummer
functioned in a conventionally rhythmic sense and with the
absence of a pianist providing chordal harmonies, the band
members were given tremendous room in which to improvise and to
interact. The music, termed "free jazz", upset many
musicians and deeply polarized the jazz community. But the well
publicized musical feuds, (Coleman was actually physically abused
by an extremely irate, but notable, musician), caught the
attention of the New York intelligencia and the initial two week
engagement turned into six months. On one side of the
controversy, leading jazz musicians were openly hostile, calling
him a charlatan, and on the other side, people like composer-
conductor Leonard Bernstein, composer Virgil Thompson and
numerous writers and painters were heralding the artistic impact
of his arrival.
By 1960, the quartet recorded two more albums, Free Jazz
and The Shape of Jazz to Come, but by the mid 1960's,
Atlantic Records decided to severe its contract with Coleman and
he withdrew from the public eye. During this period, aside from
teaching himself to play the trumpet and the violin, Coleman
turned his attention to composing in different musical forms. He
wrote several string quartets, woodwind quintets and symphonic
works, and like George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Charles
Mingus, Ornette Coleman helped to break down the bountries
between "modern jazz" and "serious concert"
music. The first public performance of his string quartet,
"Dedicated to Poets and Writers", took place at New
York's Town Hall in 1962, however, performances of his works were
scarce and most of the material from this period has yet to be
performed or recorded. RCA Red Seal did release Form and
Sounds in 1968 which featured a woodwind quintet by the same
title, performed by the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet and two
symphonic chamber works entitled "Saints and Soldiers"
and "Space Flight", performed by the string of the
Philadelphia Orchestra. This release helped clear the way for the
1972 Columbia release of Coleman's Skies of America
symphonic suite performed by the London Philharmonic. Although
the work is scored jazz ensemble and orchestra, labor regulation
in England would not permit the ensemble to play, and so the
recording actually represents a concerto version of the work. The
work received its New York debut, with the complete ensemble, at
Lincoln Center on July 4th, 1972 with the American Symphony
Orchestra, conducted by Leon Thompson.
During the 1970's Coleman's musical visions continued to expand.
In 1975, Coleman formed his current band, Prime Time, and now the
"free jazz/classical composer" was creating very
danceable music that combined elements of jazz, funk, R & B,
and rock with an unusual mix of instruments: two guitarists, two
drummers, two bassists, and Coleman on sax, violin and trumpet.
Prime Time's multi-layered melodies, polytonal, and polyrhythmic
textures, defined by Coleman as "Harmolodics",
continued to shape the music of the period, not only jazz.
Coleman's influence affected many rock musicians of the '70's,
most notably, Frank Zappa. Coleman and the Prime Time has since
toured extensively throughout North America, Europe and Asia and
have recorded several albums on the A & M Horizon, Antilles,
Artists House, and Caravan of Dreams labels.
Around the same period, Coleman became increasingly interested in
music from diverse African cultures. He traveled throughout
Africa and in 1977, A & M Records released Dancing in Your
Head featuring, on one side, field recordings that Coleman
made while playing with tribal musicians of Joujouka, Morocco,
and on the other side, Prime Time's now legendary first offering.
In the 1980's, Coleman continued to surprise the musical world
with diverse projects. In 1983, Coleman was commssioned by
Caravan of Dreams to revise and to complete Skies of America.
The work premiered September 29th at the Civic Center in Fort
Worth, Texas, his home town, with conductor John Giordano leading
the Fort Worth Symphony and Prime Time.
The same year, Coleman was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy
to write a chamber piece for their "Meet the Modern"
series. The resulting piece was entitled "The Sacred Mind of
Johnny Dolphin" and the work was performed by the Brooklyn
Philharmonic with Lucas Foss conducting. The work recently
received its European debut at the Camden Jazz Festival in
In July 1985, in Hartford, Real Art Ways presented the most
thorough examination of Coleman's work date. The week-long
festival included performances by Prime Time, screenings of
Shirley Clark's documentary film, Ornette: Made in America
and of selections from Coleman's home video archives which
included sessions in Morocco and Nigeria, concerts by former
bandmembers James (Blood) Ulmer, Ed Blackwell and Don Cherry, and
performances of Coleman's recently composed chamber music,
including "The Sacred Mind of Johnny Dolphin", for
double string quartet, trumpet and percussion, and "Time
Design", a work for string quartet and percussion dedicated
to the memory of Buckminster Fuller.
The critical success of the Hartford festival led to several
subsequent commissions in 1986. For solo violin, Coleman wrote a
work entitled "Trinity", for solo mandolin he wrote
"Notes Talking", and the Fromm Music Foundation at
Harvard University commissioned "In Honor of NASA and
Planetary Soloist", a work written for the Kronos Quartet and Joseph Celli on oboe, English horn, and Mukha
Veena (an Indian Wind instrument). Coleman was also commissioned
by Tuffts University to write "DNA Meets E=MC2", which
was performed by Prime Time and his original Quartet.
1986 and 1987 also saw two important record releases for Coleman:
"Song X" recorded with guitarist Pat Metheny, and the
Caravan of Dreams release of In All Languages, a double
album featuring both Prime Time and the Original Quartet. Between
these recordings and the chamber music festivals, Coleman's was
again at the forefront of public attention. "Song X"
was selected as the Down beat's "Records of the Year",
Prime Time as top "Electric Jazz Group", and Coleman
was chosen as top "Alto Sax" of the year and "Jazz
Musician of the Year". In addition, Rolling Stones Magazine
honored Coleman as "Jazz Artist of the Year".
Coleman's wide ranging musical contributions are not only
reflected by the music represented on the more than forty albums,
but also by the many bandmembers, inspired by Coleman's vision,
who have gone on to develop indipendent careers, such as James
(Blood) Ulmer, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Don
Cherry, Dewey Redman, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins, and Charlie Haden. Ornette Coleman has always had an unusual
ability to resurface at times when musical establishments were in
need of revitalization. For more than thirty years, the
multi-stylistic elements in Coleman's music have appealed to a
wide range of people, and in today's age of changing demographic,
his music offers programs that relate to culturally diverse
audiences. Coleman's music has always reflected the richness and
range of musical expression and today he speaks as a mature
artist at the peak of his power.
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