Ornette Coleman Biography

Ornette Coleman, the lightning rod. The most polarizing figure in the history of jazz.  The alto saxophonist who outwitted segregation to hit the scene in 1959 and turn the music world on its head. Bursting through bebop and inventing harmolodics, a sound flowing with the unpredictable rhythms of being. He was called rebellious, disruptive, a fraud, thrown off band stands, horn mangled, shunned by his peers, rejected.  Choosing to leave the music scene for long stretches, insisting his music be heard on concert stages and not restricted to small smoky basements. Knowing the cost of being a free thinker. He was guided by his harmolodic philosophy of love and expressing life’s surprises through art. Born in Texas, on March 9,1930, he is now called a genius, an icon, a legend, known as one of the most important figures in the history of music. One who is admired by artists across all genres for his convictions, the fight for freedom of creativity and to be one’s self. Ornette passed away in June 2015 at age 85; but his harmolodic song goes on.

Ornette Coleman’s earthly accolades, like his Mac Arthur “Genius” Fellowship, Grammy and Pulitzer Prize for Music, reflect the respect due to a soft-spoken man of small stature but giant mind. He dared to sidestep the system, both socially and musically, shape his life’s trajectory to his will against all odds – and forever change the way music is listened to and played.

Humble, yet with an impish twinkle, Coleman dressed in peacock silks and fine tailoring. His wardrobe was drenched with color and texture – as was his music. Throughout his career, Coleman never stopped evolving, and each phase of expression opened new sonic possibilities. Abandoning the 1950s bebop avant-garde. Switching from small, contemplative 1960s groupings to storming electric combos in the 1970s and ‘80s, driven by funky double bass and drums. Moroccan and Nigerian excursions. Philharmonic orchestra symphonies. Chamber music suites. Eerie film soundtracks. Hip-hop poetry. Coleman always lived up to the double-dare titles of his first galvanic recordings, like “The Shape of Jazz To Come.”

From the go, the players juggled with the risky science of harmolodics. The essential melodic core of the piece is firmly stated; then, ignoring a traditional 4-bar structure, they journey through their own ever-changing improvisations, attuned to each other’s flow, their individual lines embracing anew when they meet to resolve a theme.

The open-minded, open-hearted harmolodic concept is not confined to music. Arguably O.C.’s greatest achievement is not simply inventing this sound, that makes listeners feel a new level of connection; but doing it while forging the extended tribe of artists and musicians from various disciplines, shown here. The rich Coleman saga is the tale of a man destined to overthrow society’s limited expectations and open unknown worlds to millions…

They both had to leave segregated, suppressive Texas to fulfill their dreams, recalled close friend Melvin Edwards, the second husband of Ornette’s poet/activist wife, Jayne Cortez at Ornette’s Memorial. The album titles reflect Ornette’s own exodus. From Texas, Ornette took nothin’ but the blues, which never left. Next stop was Los Angeles, where he found Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins. Later, in the 1960s, Scandinavia became a haven, as heard in 1965’s “Live at the Golden Circle, Stockholm, Parts 1 & 2”, featuring David Izenson and Charles Moffett. He was not on those sessions, but Cherry even created a harmolodic outpost there, with his Swedish artist wife Moki and musician children Neneh and Eagle Eye. But once Ornette claimed New York, it would become Harmolodic HQ for the duration. Texas was history.

Coleman raised his whole family with his horn, back in Texas. His seamstress mother struggled to support the family after his father died when he was seven – yet she still managed to buy her son his first saxophone, with which he taught himself to sight-read. In the active local bar and club scene, Ornette played r’n’b working service industry jobs to survive. Joining the Pee Wee Crayton Band was his ticket out, as he developed his playing in the bebop style of the times. But Charlie Parker made him question the old avant-garde, and Coleman set out to make the next wave.

From the restrictions and petty humiliations of Texas, Ornette moved to Los Angeles in 1953. There the free-flowing harmolodic sound took shape, as he became a leader of local bohemia, married the poet and activist Jayne Cortez, and their drummer son Denardo was born. Ornette honed his core team of trumpeter Don Cherry, and bassist Charlie Haden; the trio shaped 1958’s debut, “Something Else”, and 1959’s “Tomorrow Is The Question.” They galvanized and divided New York when they performed at Greenwich Village’s Five Spot that year. Ornette was scorned as a charlatan by the jazz establishment but hailed by the progressive likes of Leonard Bernstein. The bold statements of LPs like 1960’s “Free Jazz” and “The Shape of Jazz To Come,” made the controversial maverick known. But then Atlantic canceled their contract. Ornette beat a tactical retreat, and concentrated on broadening his art, learning the trumpet and violin, breaking more barriers with his approach to “classical” formats like string quartets and woodwind quintets. That period, supposedly in the wilderness, was foundational for a life-long string of soaring string, chamber and orchestral projects, like 1972’s “Skies of America,” 1984’s “The Sacred Mind of Johnny Dolphin,” followed the next year by “Time Design,” a suite for architect Buckminster Fuller; and Ornette’s eerie soundtrack for the film of William Burroughs’ “The Naked Lunch,” made in 1991 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Flexibility, sensitivity and a swift response are all central to the harmolodic ethos. As times changed, so, always, did Ornette’s sound. His post-Atlantic Records return with the legendary Town Hall shows, which he self-promoted, extended his affection for strings with a new trio formation: drummer Charles Moffett, (whose son Charnett performs on this Box Set,) and double bassist David Izenzon, plus viola and cello. He chose New York for his public return because ultimately, though the world was its home, New York was harmolodic’s base.

One junior school student was to help Ornette chart new directions. In 1966, aged 10, Denardo joined the band on drums, for “Ornette at 12.” The special relationship was to continue throughout Ornette’s life, with Denardo as both drummer and manager.

Establishing his own environment in the freewheeling early 1970s, “before SoHo was SoHo,” as family friend Nathaniel Phillips recalls at the memorial, Ornette’s experiments in communal creative living evoked in 1970s’s “Friends and Neighbors: Live at Prince Street,” helped define the New York loft jazz scene. In those grimy metalwork light-industrial streets, the idea of freedom in music became an unpredictable, endlessly creative way of life.

A watershed in the 1970s saw harmolodics become a full-blooded foray into electronic funk that even veered towards metal, with the band Prime Time. The Bronx was burning, Congress told the band’s hometown to get lost, and punk was brawling downtown.  Doubling up on both bass and drums, harmolodic rhythms rolled and roared like a tornado, fired with the intensity of the times, captured on the anthemic statement release, 1975’s “Dancing In Your Head.” Making the changes and connections clear, Ornette combined his classic Cherry-Haden-Blackwell combo plus Prime Time, on the double 1987 CD “In All Languages.” In that decade, Ornette also found himself in Texas once more, where the new Caravan of Dreams Arts Complex offered him a studio and a chance to curate.  The state he had fled was now calling him back. Shirley Clarke’s 1985 “Ornette: Made in America” documentary shows Ornette receiving the key to his hometown, Fort Worth. Great shifts were normal for Ornette, and in the 1980s, collaborations with friends and admirers like The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia for “Virgin Beauty” and “Song X” guitarist Pat Metheny, opened many new heads to Ornette.  Strains of his journeys to Africa and field trip recordings were also weaving into the ever-bubbling harmolodic brew.

They called the music “free,” sometimes to Ornette’s annoyance. But he consistently struggled to retain his career as well as creative independence. Having shifted between several labels, including RCA and Blue Note, his Harmolodic label partnership with Verve for Prime Time was renewed in the early 1990s. The internet was spawning and Ornette employed the now distant sound of a firing modem, as he cut ‘95’s “Tone Dialing” in his own studio in an Art Deco building in Harlem, and introduced local hiphop. It was a moment of dynamic autonomy, that coincided with what became a wealth of honors bestowed upon Ornette.

Among many others, in 1994, he received the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” award; and in 1997 Ornette was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2001, he received the prestigious Praemium Imperiale award from the Japanese government. Then came the Pulitzer awarded to Ornette when he broke a ten-year silence with “Sound Grammar” in 2006; almost all new material, recorded live in Germany with players who now form the core of the Denardo’s Vibe band, like bassist Tony Falanga. So the LP represents a link to the sound’s future – and to its past, as Ornette’s inborn Texas blues infuse this concert.

The great heart Ornette had at the start helped him transform the trajectory of his life with harmolodics, whose equality of sound is rooted in empathy. . Maybe sensing this was his last address to the public, when Ornette spoke to the audience at the “Celebrate Ornette” show, he left us with this advice: “We can’t be against each other. We’ve got to help each other.”