With the death of Ornette Coleman in June, we lost another jazz legend. A fiercely independent artist and a controversial figure pretty much his whole musical life, Coleman ushered in a new way of thinking about improvising—he was determined to shake free of the restrictive structures of show tunes and blues, and to push his saxophone toward the far limits of its expressiveness.
Coleman was hugely influenced by Charlie Parker, but at heart he was an original. Even as a young man, he was testing innovative ideas on the bandstand—and not being appreciated for them. He taught himself traditional theory and harmony, then either ignored them or reinterpreted them in ways others couldn’t understand. Stubbornly following his own path meant he spent a lot of his life working at menial jobs and sitting near his silent phone waiting for gigs.
Over the course of his musical life, he was denounced by influential artists like Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, but celebrated as a genius by others like Leonard Bernstein. He basically ushered in the free jazz avant garde with The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959) and Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation (1960). Over the next few years, he moved toward more complex orchestral compositions like Skies of America, and then began to absorb the sounds of funk and fusion.
He was not one to stop exploring and following his own muse, and the world came around to his vision. He has been the subject of a couple of documentary films. His recording, Sound Grammar, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, and that same year he was awarded a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement.
Right into his eighties, Coleman was experimenting, performing with eclectic musicians—rappers and drum choirs and video artists and musicians from far-flung countries. For him, all music was one music. As he said in an interview one time, “I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody. I just want to be as human as I can get.”
That’s a sentiment we might all adopt in his absence.