“His playing has a real purity about it, a real beauty,” Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead said of the iconoclastic alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman in 1989. Garcia had just played on the latter’s album Virgin Beauty, a complex, radiant showcase for Coleman’s idea of free jazz: defying conventional laws of harmony, melody and rhythm in the pursuit of an individual, ecstatic voice. Coleman, who died on June 11th in New York at age 85 of cardiac arrest, coined a name for his music: harmolodics. But Garcia recalled Coleman trying to explain his vision during a session for that LP: “Finally, he said, ‘Oh, just go ahead and play, man.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, I get it now.’ ”
Coleman’s titanic impact on jazz as a composer, improviser and lifelong outsider can be measured in the truth of album titles like Something Else!!!!, his 1958 debut, and 1960’s Change of the Century. “Even in jazz, there are rules of engagement – Ornette shook up that orthodoxy,” says Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, who played with drummer and Coleman alumnus Ronald Shannon Jackson. “And a lot of people did not get it.” The exuberant turmoil of Coleman’s groups and his searing tone on alto sax, grounded in gospel and the blues of his native Texas, polarized the jazz community in the late Fifties and Sixties. Miles Davis claimed Coleman was “all screwed up inside”; John Coltrane became a disciple and collaborator.
The liberating force of Coleman’s music had an equally dramatic, transforming effect on rock. “I used to run around the Village following Ornette Coleman wherever he played,” said Lou Reed, whose free-rock guitar work in the Velvet Underground was inspired by Coleman’s soloing. The Dead’s collective improvising, the directed chaos of Captain Beefheart’s 1969 album Trout Mask Replica, and New York post-punk bands like Sonic Youth and Defunkt all reflected Coleman’s innovations.
Born on March 9th, 1930, in Fort Worth, Coleman led his first combos in Los Angeles in the Fifties, starting long relationships with bassist Charlie Haden and trumpeter Don Cherry. The 1960 LP Free Jazz became synonymous with an emerging avant-garde, but Coleman resisted definition: composing the symphony Skies of America; recording in Morocco with the Master Musicians of Jajouka in 1973; revving up his R&B roots with guitars in the band Prime Time with his son Denardo on drums; and making a 1986 LP, Song X, with guitarist Pat Metheny.
Coleman’s imprint was summarized at a 2014 tribute concert in Brooklyn featuring saxophonist Sonny Rollins, guitarist Thurston Moore and Patti Smith. But Coleman was always certain his music would be understood. “I have always wanted to go into the mainstream,” he said in 1989. “But I didn’t want to sacrifice what I was doing to get there.”