Ornette Coleman was an American jazz saxophonist, violinist, trumpeter, composer and one of the major innovators of the free jazz movement of the 1960s.
Born and raised in Texas, Coleman attended I.M. Terrell High School, where he participated in the school band until he was dismissed for improvising during “The Washington Post.”

He began performing R&B and bebop initially on tenor saxophone, and started a band, the Jam Jivers, with some fellow students. In New Orleans he switched from tenor to alto-sax after his saxophone was stolen during an assault. He joined the band of Pee Wee Crayton and travelled to Los Angeles where he took various jobs, including as an elevator operator, while continuing to pursue his musical career.

Coleman’s unique early sound was due in part to his use of a plastic saxophone. He had first bought a plastic horn in Los Angeles in 1954 because he was unable to afford a metal saxophone, though he didn’t like the sound of the plastic instrument at first. In later years, he played a metal saxophone. From the beginning of his career, Coleman’s music and playing were unorthodox and he was increasingly interested in playing what he heard rather than fitting it into predetermined chorus-structures and harmonies. His raw, highly vocalized sound and penchant for playing “in the cracks” of the scale led many jazz musicians to regard Coleman’s playing as out-of-tune.

He created music that would greatly affect most of the other advanced improvisers of the 1960s, including John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and the free jazz players of the mid-’60s. His tone, which purposely wavered in pitch, and his emotional solos that followed their own logic rattled some listeners. In 1962, feeling that he was worth much more money than he was being paid, he surprised the jazz world by retiring. He took up trumpet and violin (playing the latter as if it were a drum), and in 1965 he recorded a few brilliant sets on all his instruments with a strong trio featuring bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett

In the early ’70s his music became more angular and engaged fully with the jazz avant-garde. He formed a double quartet comprised of two guitars, two electric bassists, two drummers, and his own alto. The group, called Prime Time, featured dense, noisy, and often witty ensembles in which all of the musicians supposedly have an equal role, but Coleman’s sax always ended up standing out.

His “Broadway Blues” has become a standard and has been cited as a key work in the free jazz movement. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1994. In 2007 he was also honoured with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Fun Fact

On 17th November 1959, 29 year-old Ornette Coleman began a 2 week residency at the Five Spot jazz club in New York. In what became known as ‘The Battle of the Five Spot’, Coleman and his quartet threw down a free-jazz gauntlet to the then jazz establishment, challenging all preconceptions about what jazz could be.

About this Contributor

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Randolph Denard Ornette
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Minutes created
Ornette Coleman et al. : Free Jazz (Part 1), Collection 2 #10

Minutes by Ornette Coleman