Ornette Coleman (March 9, 1930 – June 11, 2015). Alto saxophonist and composer.
Since last Halloween, many notable musicians have died: singers Joe Cocker, Lesley Gore, Julie Wilson, Percy Sledge, Ben E. King, Errol Brown, Patachou, and Jean Ritchie; saxophone players Bobby Keys (of the Rolling Stones), Paul Jeffrey, and Phil Woods; Three Dog Night members Cory Wells and Jimmy Greenspoon; Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream; Daevid Allen of Soft Machine; Robert Burns, Jr. of Lynyrd Skynrd; Chris Squire of Yes; Don Joyce of Negativland; Steve Mackay of The Stooges; rapper Sean Price; percussionist Vic Firth; composers Gunther Schuller, William Thomas McKinley, and James Horner; musical writers Oliver Sacks and Mitchell Gaynor; and the great blues musician B.B. King.
The subject of this year’s Memorial Jack-o-lantern is the composer, alto saxophonist, and musical pioneer Ornette Coleman. He died on June 11 at age 85.
“Ornette didn’t play free jazz, what he did was he freed jazz,” said critic Howard Mandel. Born near the railroad tracks of Fort Worth, Texas, Coleman grew into a pivotal iconoclast of improvisational music. His music questioned many of the assumptions of jazz and opened up new possibilities in harmonic structure, instrumentation, and technical expertise.
Coleman described himself as “a composer who performs.” His albums created in collaboration with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins, lived up to their ambitious titles: The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century. Coleman described his particular approach to musical creation as “harmolodics” (combining harmony, melody, and movement), and “sound grammar.” He sought to hear each individual’s unique musical voice, saying, “I think that every person, whether they play music or don’t play music, has a sound—their own sound.”
Coleman did not confine himself to a single musical genre, creating work that could be described as jazz, classical, and rock. His collaborators include the Master Musicians of Jajouka, Yoko Ono, the Grateful Dead, Laurie Anderson, and Lou Reed. In 1991, he performed on Howard Shore’s soundtrack to the film Naked Lunch, based on the novel by Willam S. Burroughs. Although his early music was often met with ridicule and misunderstanding, Coleman later received awards including the Pulitzer Prize, two Guggenheims, and a MacArthur for his contributions to musical culture.
“It’s not that he thought outside the box,” said Coleman’s son Denardo. “He didn’t accept that there were any boxes.”
Thanks for the music Ornette—its beauty is a rare thing.
Back in its more adventurous days, SNL once featured Coleman's group Prime Time as its musical guest.
A good primer on Coleman’s catalog is available on Pitchfork here.