Self-taught saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman emerged at the end of the 1950s, shocking the New York jazz scene with his radically new writing style, which did away with prevailing conventions of harmony, rhythm and melody - an approach that laid the groundwork for the free jazz movement. Never looking back, the pioneering (and controversial) musician, who also plays trumpet and violin, has continued to explore unchartered musical territory with inexhaustible imagination and unrelenting artistic vision.
Ornette Coleman was born in Fort Worth, Texas on March 9, 1930. He taught himself how to play the alto saxophone at age 14 and picked up the tenor two years later. Troubled by the racial segregation and poverty in his home state, the 19-year-old moved to Los Angeles, where he operated an elevator by day and studied music books by night.
A new movement shapes up
Even on the West Coast, Coleman initially had trouble finding similarly open-minded musicians. But over the course of the 1950s, he met trumpeters Don Cherry and Bobby Bradford, drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, and bassist Charlie Haden. In 1958, Coleman briefly joined Paul Bley's quintet, playing at the Hillcrest Club, California. The following year, he attended the Lenox School of Jazz and had a fruitful run at the Five Spot in New York.
With the release of his debut, Something Else, in 1958, and The Shape of Jazz to Come the following year, Coleman ushered in a new era in jazz history. Freed from conventional melody, harmony and rhythm, his electric, energetic music exemplified the "free jazz" movement, or what he dubbed his theory of "harmolodics."
Coleman entered a prolific period in the 1960s, during which time he released more than 15 albums on the Blue Note and Atlantic labels, many of which are now considered jazz classics. In particular, Free Jazz (1960) was the genre's first continuous improvisation LP with the title track clocking in at just over 37 minutes.
In 1962, the visionary saxophonist temporarily entered early retirement in protest of what he considered to be inadequate pay from record labels and clubs. Around that time, he took up trumpet and violin, which he played percussively, and began composing string quartets, woodwind quintets and symphonies.
Making (sound) waves
In the early 1970s, Coleman traveled to Nigeria and Morocco, discovering new melodies and rhythms while playing with local musicians. In 1975, seeking a fuller sound, he formed Prime Time. Comprised of two guitarists, two drummers, two electric bassists and Coleman on alto, the groundbreaking "double quartet" had all members soloing simultaneously.
During the longest recording break of his career, from 1980 to 1985, Coleman made his debut at the Festival in 1982. He returned six years later with Prime Time, contributing to the group's signature expansive improvisations alongside his son Denardo on drums.
The mid- to late 1980s saw Coleman collaborate with guitar star Pat Metheny (a lifelong admirer of the saxophonist) on Song X (1985) and invite Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia to contribute third guitar on three songs of the densely textured Virgin Beauty (1988).
During the 1990s, Coleman dabbled in other art forms, composing the score for Architecture in Motion, a "harmolodic ballet," and contributing to the film soundtracks of Naked Lunch (1991) and Philadelphia (1993). In 1994, he was a recipient of the distinguished MacArthur Fellowship (otherwise known as the "Genius Award").
The following year, Coleman released Tone Dialing on his recently launched Harmolodic label under Polygram, and followed up with three more recordings into the next year. In 1997, the pioneering musician was feted during a four-day festival at the Lincoln Center, which included performances by the New York Philharmonic together with Prime Time of Coleman's 1972 symphonic work, Skies of America.
In 2006, his album Sound Grammar won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, the first jazz work to be given the honour. In 2009, Coleman paid his third visit to the Festival. The 79-year-old received a warm welcome, winning the Miles Davis Award for the lasting impact of his entire oeuvre on the world of jazz.