When saxophonist Ornette Coleman played clubs in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s, audiences often covered their ears and waited outside until his set was done. He shunned the conventions of melody and harmony and encouraged his bandmates to do the same, producing a sound too dissonant for mainstream tastes.
So in 1959, when the iconoclastic musician and composer blew into New York for a gig at the legendary Five Spot jazz club, hostility flowed — drummer Max Roach expressed his disapproval by punching Coleman in the mouth.
But the club was filled, night after night, for weeks. By the the end of his run, Coleman had launched a new kind of cool.
“He’s doing the only really new thing in jazz since the innovations of Parker, Gillespie and Monk,” pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet said at the time.
Coleman, whose spontaneous approach to jazz improvisation and imaginative compositions stamped him as one of the most innovative and controversial figures of the post-bebop era and brought him a Pulitzer Prize for musical composition in 2007, died of cardiac arrest Thursday in New York, said his publicist, Ken Weinstein. He was 85.
His performance at the Five Spot polarized much of the jazz world. Some viewed him as a charlatan who played freely because he lacked the skills required to improvise in traditional fashion. Others saw him as a compelling artist, moving jazz forward into adventurous new territory.
“I sometimes realize that there is something on the earth that is free of everything but what created it,” he told the New York Times decades later, “and that is the one thing that I have been trying to find.”
Coleman’s music encompassed a seemingly unlikely combination of elements.
The Texas blues riffs of his youth were interspersed with fast-moving bebop phrases. Rhythm flowed in an orbit of its own. The soloists had completely unfettered freedom to find their way, without the traditional jazz obligations to remain with the scheme of a song’s harmonies. And Coleman used the full resources of the alto saxophone, reaching from fast note flurries and high harmonics to multi-phonics and vocalized interjections. Occasionally, he played the violin or trumpet, with less technical expertise but similar daring.
Given the utter uniqueness that this wide-open approach could bring to each performance, it was no surprise that it soon became known as “free jazz” — a title Coleman himself applied to his sixth album. The recording is a nearly 40-minute-long free improvisation by two quartets, one led by Coleman, the other by Eric Dolphy. More than simply establishing the label “free jazz,” it became the pathfinder for the numerous avant-garde jazz movements that largely dominated the ’60s.
Coleman’s own explanation of his creative goals, however, tended to avoid the use of identifications such as “free jazz” and “avant-garde” in favor of more esoteric narratives.
“I don’t think that sound has a style,” he said in the Los Angeles Times in 1984. “The human voice doesn’t have a style, it has a language, and sound is the same way. We make the style once we find the sound that takes the form of the idea.”
Ornette Coleman was born March 9, 1930, in Fort Worth, the last of four children of Randolph and Rosa Coleman. His father died when he was 7. Coleman said he only recalled seeing his father once — in a baseball uniform — but had no real memories of him. Coleman’s mother was a seamstress.
Because of the family’s limited financial resources, he reportedly saved the money he made shining shoes to buy his first saxophone. Unable to afford lessons, he taught himself the fundamentals of the instrument, practicing by playing along with music on the radio.
By his late teens Coleman was performing in local bar bands and traveling carnival shows before moving to Los Angeles in the early ’50s. Working as an elevator operator, he again studied on his own, reading music theory books.
The first visible results of his quest to find his own way were present on two albums recorded on the West Coast in the late ’50s — “Something Else” and “Tomorrow Is The Question.” But Coleman fully emerged on the national stage in late 1959 when he led his quartet — with Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums — in the seminal performance at New York's Five Spot.
The controversy provoked by that appearance, followed by the release of “Free Jazz,” quickly established him as the jazz world's new revolutionary. Despite initial critical barbs leveled at him, Coleman was aided by praise and support from such established figures as composer and educator Gunther Schuller and the New York Philharmonic's Leonard Bernstein.
He received Guggenheim fellowships in 1967 and 1974, and his large concert work for jazz band and orchestra — “The Skies of America” — continues to have symphonic performances by orchestras around the world.
In the ’70s and ’80s, Coleman's continued musical probing led him to the establishment of Prime Time, an electric group that sometimes doubled his backing with paired teams of guitarists, bassists and drummers. He began, at the same time, to advance a theoretical approach to music that he named “Harmolodics,” underscoring his belief in the equality of harmony and melody. He also reached into world music, recording with Morocco's Master Musicians of Joujouka on the album “Dancing in Your Head.”
From the ’80s on, Coleman was widely acknowledged as an iconic figure, ranked with such innovative figures as Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane. Others saw him from an even broader perspective as he collaborated with Pat Metheny, Yoko Ono, Jerry Garcia, Lou Reed and, in “Skies of America,” the New York Philharmonic.
Besides the Pulitzer for his 2006 album “Sound Grammar,” he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1994, and a Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize in 2004. His other honors include induction into the French Order of Arts and Letters and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Coleman continued to tour widely into his 80s with a group that included his son and manager, Denardo Coleman, on drums, and paired basses, one acoustic, the other electric.
He gave his last public performance a year ago in New York. Although billed as a concert for him, it became partly a concert by him. He spent much of the show on stage with his sax, playing with an eclectic group of celebrants who included saxophonists Branford Marsalis and John Zorn, Laurie Anderson on violin, and Flea, the bassist from Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“'There's nothing else but life,”' the pioneer of free jazz told the audience. “We can't be against each other. We have to help each other. It'll turn out like you will never forget it.”
Coleman is survived by his son, Denardo, and a grandson, Ornette Ali Coleman. His marriage to Jayne Cortez ended in divorce in 1964.
Don Heckman is a Times correspondent.
Staff writer Elaine Woo contributed to this report.