ORNETTE COLEMAN, March 9, 1930-

Ornette Coleman is one of the most innovative—and controversial—figures in jazz history. An early proponent of free jazz, his recordings led the way in illustrating how both musicians, and listeners, could resist the traditional laws of harmony, melody, rhythm, and pitch. He would formalize his techniques in the early 1970s under the heading of "harmolodics," in which harmonies, rhythms, and melodies—assigned equal importance—function independently.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Coleman began playing tenor and alto sax in R&B and jazz bands while still in his teens. Following more than a decade of experimentation and study, he burst upon the scene with a quartet comprised of kindred spirits including trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Billy Higgins. In Something Else! (Contemporary 7551; 1958) and Tomorrow Is the Question! (Contemporary 7569; 1959) his basic group, augmented with additional veteran players, remained tied to established chordal and structural formats. However, his Atlantic albums released between 1959-1961—most notably, The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic 1317; 1959), Change of the Century (Atlantic 1327; 1959), This Is Our Music (Atlantic 1353; 1960), Free Jazz (Atlantic 1364; 1960), Ornette! (Atlantic; 1961), and Ornette on Tenor (Atlantic; 1961)—were milestones in the development of a more natural jazz form.

After several years outside the public eye, Coleman entered a new phase of productivity during the latter half of the 1960s.characterized by a more directed lyricism. While his solos on violin, trumpet, and musette—on which he produced individual, unorthodox sounds—were highly controversial, his work as a whole revealed a more directed lyricism, best exemplified on At the "Golden Circle" Stockholm, Volume 1 (Blue Note 84224; 1965) and At the "Golden Circle" Stockholm, Volume 2 (Blue Note 84225; 1965).

Coleman’s theory of harmolody was introduced in his extended compositions, Skies of America (Columbia 31562; 1972), performed with the London Symphony Orchestra. He then embarked upon another of his frequent sabbaticals, studying world music, the rock scene, and electrified instruments such as the guitar. These experiences were all integrated into the funk-fusion album, Dancing In Your Head (Horizon 722; 1977), featuring his new band, Prime Time. Later versions of the band would vary in configuration, reflecting Coleman’s far-ranging interests over the last decades of the twentieth century. In addition to reunions with old associates—the most acclaimed being his duet project with Haden, Soapsuds, Soapsuds (Artists House; 1977)—he has collaborated with a diverse array of artists, including Pat Metheny—Song X (Geffen; 1986)—and Jerry Garcia in Virgin Beauty (CBS Portrait; 1988).

As the world has gradually caught up with Coleman’s innovations, an increasing number of reissued albums and retrospectives have been issued. Notable examples of the latter include Broken Shadows (Columbia; 1979), a collection of unissued material from the early 1970s, and Beauty Is A Rare Thing (Atlantic/Rhino; 1993), a six-CD compilation of his entire Atlantic oeuvre.

Back to Jazz Back to Table of Contents