Ornette Coleman: 1930-2015

The skies of America darken with the loss of a genius.

The creative music community is mourning the loss of the legendary Ornette Coleman, who died of cardiac arrest on June 11, 2015, at the age of 85.

Born Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman in Fort Worth, Texas, on March 9, 1930, Coleman took to the saxophone early, earning much-needed cash to support his family while still in his teens.

He arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, having already established a singular voice on the instrument. That voice was most often ridiculed by his peer group, whose narrow adherence to the bebop aesthetic established by Charlie Parker led many to brand Coleman as a charlatan, even though "Something Else!!!!" -- his first record, on the Contemporary record label -- was clearly an extension of the bebop language.

“Musicians tell me if what I’m doing is right then they never should have gone to music school,” Coleman said early on. He could crack the ostensible, self-deprecating joke in one flash then counter with a sentence of devastating clarity the next. “The idea is more important than the style you’re playing in.” And no one was more preoccupied with ideas than Coleman.

Building a like-minded quartet of Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and either Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell on drums led to a NYC debut and a recording contract with Atlantic Records. In 1959, Coleman, notoriously prolific, recorded three records that shocked the general public: "The Shape of Jazz to Come," "Change of the Century" and "This Is Our Music," followed in 1960 by the even more radical "Free Jazz," which augmented the ensemble to include trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy and bassist Scott LaFaro alongside Cherry, Haden, Higgins and Blackwell.

Coleman was a genius at composing melodies that stuck in the listener’s head, and he seemed to have an unlimited number of memorable themes at his disposal. His sound was an enigma: It was raw and infused with the primal cry of the blues, yet there was a sputtering whinny that suggested an uncorrupted and indomitable spirit.

The highlights of his lifetime commitment to music include (but are not confined to) his early quartet music, the mid-'60s trio with bassist David Izenson and drummer Charles Moffett, the 1971 expanded ensemble album "Science Fiction" and the 1972 orchestral masterpiece "Skies of America," which was based on his complex and rarely understood theoretical construct “harmolodics,” which sought to evenly distribute melody, rhythm and harmony into a new paradigm.

Coleman turned to electricity in 1976, establishing the group Prime Time, which grew into a kind of “double-trio,” featuring two guitarists, two electric bassists and two drummers. Prime Time released "Dancing In Your Head," followed by "Body Meta," "Of Human Feelings," "Tone Dialing" and "Virgin Beauty," which featured Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia on several cuts.

In 1986, a collaboration with guitarist Pat Metheny yielded the incendiary "Song X," with Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette and his own son Denardo Coleman, who first appeared on record with the saxophone innovator in 1966’s "The Empty Foxhole" at the tender age of 10.

In 2004, he was awarded the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the richest prizes in the arts, and in 2006, Coleman won the Pulitzer Prize for his album "Sound Grammar," making him only the second jazz musician in history to earn the distinction.

Coleman’s influence on the world of music is incalculable and has yet to dissipate. His music remains both shocking and inevitable, imbued with a wicked swing, earthy bluesiness and almost unbearable sweetness. Above all, his music expresses joy at the most existential level.

It was widely alleged in the beginning of his career that Coleman, a self-taught musician, did not understand the conventional rules of music making, especially in harmonic terms, yet the music he created shook the world to its core and made his detractors seem silly and myopic in retrospect. “It was when I found that I could make mistakes that I knew I was on to something,” said the saxophone innovator.

When he couldn’t find a trumpeter or violinist to properly execute the music in his head, Coleman took up the instruments himself, astonishing some and infuriating others.

You don’t even need to love music in general or jazz in particular to appreciate the scope of his unique gift for language. A cursory examination of the song titles will suffice: “The Circle With a Hole in the Middle,” “Old & New Dreams,” “The Tribes of New York,” “Harlem’s Manhattan,” and “Dancing in Your Head” are just a few examples of the Coleman point of view. He simply saw the world differently.

But if you do love music, in any fashion, exploring the Coleman catalog is the gift that keeps on giving. Start with the Atlantic recordings and work toward "Sound Grammar" and experience the joy, the originality and the majesty of a true American Master.

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years. Follow him on Twitter @robertbushjazz. Visit The World According to Rob.

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