Yesterday, Ornette Coleman died. Let that sink in. Ornette Coleman has died.
According to a family representative, he fell to cardiac arrest. He was 85.
The composer, saxophonist, violinist and trumpeter — born and raised in our very own Fort Worth — has over 50 records to his name, a good bit of which can rightly be called masterpieces. His career and its manifestation as discography is a near-unmanageable rainbow of texture, concept and energy, each wrinkle of which is marked by that infamously inexhaustible restlessness that's now so unmistakably Coleman. This outpouring can be potentially divided into so many distinct periods and countless reinventions that it's hard not to think of Coleman as at least partially immortal; he seemed to live the life of at least a dozen musicians.
Coleman always seemed both less and more substantial than jazz's other looming giants. Having neither the iconic flash of Miles Davis nor the troubled mystique of John Coltrane, Coleman was by comparison something of an outlier, and as a result, is less well known. (The short answer as to why has something to do with accessibility; the long answer concerns image, personality and a general disregard for fame.) Which, when seriously considered, is odd because when most people think of jazz they think of just the sort of sound Coleman pioneered: that squiggling, completely free music that finds its visual equivalent in the sinuous chaos of Jackson Pollock's paintings. Which is to say, even if you've never heard of him or his music, you still know Ornette Coleman.
It should come as no surprise then that Coleman is perhaps best known for his genre defining work, Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation (the cover of which, fittingly, features a painting by Jackson Pollock ). Like scenes of car crashes continually locked in an infinity of reliving themselves, Free Jazz's raw viscosity saw improvisational music deconstructed and inbred, a sea of sounds endlessly imploding, flowering and hemorrhaging into clusters of gorgeous sonic shrapnel. It remains, arguably, the most complete musical representation of Coleman's strange, beautiful spirit.
But free jazz is not all Coleman was. Not by a long shot. The self-taught musician lived a turbulent and eventful life. After managing to ride his imagination up and out from his North Texas birthplace, Coleman worked a series of odd jobs — some musical, some not — throughout Mississippi and Louisiana before landing in L.A., where he would finally find a group of musicians willing to embrace his radical approaches, including Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins.
After releasing his debut Something Else!!!! and its follow-up Tomorrow is the Question!, the Ornette Coleman Quartet, including the above Haden, Higgins and Cherry, recorded the avant opus The Shape of Jazz to Come in May of 1959. A string of then-controversial dates in Manhattan would follow shortly thereafter, serving as something of an exhibition for the stark, burning newness of Coleman's music. It was a contentious originality that found tangibility in the 1961 release of the double quartet recording Free Jazz, and produced many a memorable quote: Miles Davis would famously state, “Just listen to what he writes and how he plays...the man's all screwed up inside;” while 'Trane referred to a 12-minute shared performance with Coleman as “the most intense moment of my life.”
After a retreat from the public eye, Coleman reappeared in the mid-'60s reinvented, having, among other things, added violin to his toolbox. Despite already having a career's worth of highlights under his belt, Coleman remained hungry and several more masterpieces followed: the majestic third-stream monolith Skies of America ('72) with the London Symphony Orchestra, Science Fiction ('72), Dancing in Your Head, the terribly underrated Song X and In All Languages, and the late-career releases Tone Dialing and Sound Grammar — the last of which won The Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2007.
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Throughout his career, Coleman was honing, shaping and ever redefining a universal musical language he termed Harmolodics. Effecting a degree of freedom and even-handed composition not entirely dissimilar to the post-tonal motivations behind Arnold Schoenberg's serialism, Harmolodics was a concept that became synonymous with the name Ornette Coleman, a slippery, obfuscated philosophy that adequately mirrored the elusive nature of the artist who conceived it. Coleman's radicalism, ambition and foresight, rivaling that of any other figure in all of jazz history, places him not only in the upper echelons of improvisational music, but also in the conversation of modern revolutionaries like John Cage, Edgar Varese and Igor Stravinsky.
“I just play life,” Coleman once declared (the uniting, life-affirming power of music being the axis on which his theory of harmolodics pivoted). With his music now permanently and inextinguishably etched across the collective thought of art history, Coleman's life will never cease to keep on playing. Forever.
Join Dallas-based jazz trio Yells at Eels next Monday, June 15 at the Crown and Harp's Outward Bound Mixtape Sessions (curated by Stefan González) as they perform a tribute to the life and music of Ornette Coleman.