Jazz & Blues

Ornette Coleman, free jazz pioneer who stuck to his principles

Saxophonist who felt unshackled by musical convention but never consistently explained his 'harmolodics' theory, was defiantly different to the end

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 June, 2015, 11:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 June, 2015, 11:02pm

Before his appearance during the 2008 Hong Kong Arts Festival, Ornette Coleman told the South China Morning Post he was "constantly trying to find a different idea for the same note".

"I think that's the only thing that makes you stand out as an individual - how you play that note. That's what marks me down and keeps me going," he said.

That quest kept him going - as an exploratory artist - from the high school band in which he played tenor saxophone in the 1940s, through the '50s and '60s innovations of the free jazz movement, of which he was the founding father, to his eventual acceptance as one of jazz's elder statesmen. He died from a heart attack at the age of 85 on June 11.

Like fellow saxophonists John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, Coleman was a notably kind, gentle man whose music could provoke angry denunciations and even physical attacks.

After one early gig in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as a touring musician in an R&B band, he was assaulted by some members of an audience who hated his playing so much that as well as beating him up they destroyed his tenor saxophone.

This partly prompted a switch to alto, but nothing daunted Coleman. His absolute confidence in the merit of his music is clearly expressed in the grandiloquence of album titles such as The Shape of Jazz to Come and group names such as The Jazz Messiahs.

One reason he felt unshackled by musical convention is that he was self-taught, and from an early age seemed to have heard sounds on his instrument as legitimate music which to others seemed merely beginner's mistakes.

Some thought him incompetent, others thought him a fraud. When he began to promote his theory of music, which he called "harmolodics", it probably didn't help that he never explained it the same way twice, and that nobody he explained it to was ever able to make sense of what he said.

And yet Coleman wrote and played much music that has stood the test of time, and been hugely influential in jazz and beyond. Repeated listening tends to reveal order beneath apparent chaos, although an order based on melody rather than previously agreed chord changes or rhythmic patterns.

Until the mid-'90s Coleman seldom worked with pianists, but did need an anchor for his improvisation, and for this, he relied on his bassists. Pre-eminent among them was Charlie Haden, who died last year.

Coleman's emphasis on collective improvisation, rather than on featured soloists over accompaniment, harked back to the earliest days of New Orleans jazz. Another feature of his blues roots was his use of slightly flat or sharp notes, which to many cohorts simply sounded out of tune.

In his last years, Coleman - whose influence extended from those who adopted some or all of his free jazz innovations, to The Velvet Underground and on to punk rock - was honoured with such accolades as a Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 2006 album Sound Grammar.

Yet many still found his music hard to follow. Some members of the audience for that 2008 Hong Kong Arts Festival performance walked out.

Most stayed, though, and he was applauded warmly for playing the same way that got him beaten up in Baton Rouge nearly 60 years earlier. He was a man of principles who stuck to them. RIP.

Take Three

A trio of significant Coleman releases, each representing a peak in his recording career:

Beauty is a Rare Thing (1993, Rhino): the definitive Coleman compilation, containing all the tracks from his most influential early albums for the Atlantic label, recorded between 1959 and 1961, including The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, This is Our Music, and Free Jazz. There is not much here that could be described as easy listening.

ZZ at the Golden Circle, Stockholm  (1965, Blue Note): after leaving Atlantic, Coleman found a berth at Blue Note and replaced his quartet with a trio - himself on alto saxophone, violin and trumpet; David Izenzon on double bass; and Charles Moffett on drums. More accessible than some of his earlier music, this was released in two volumes and is now sold as a two-CD set with six bonus tracks.

Song X Twentieth Anniversary (2005, Nonesuch): the original Song X, recorded in 1985 and issued on Geffen in 1986, brought Coleman to the wider audience for Pat Metheny's melodic jazz, and shocked that audience by displaying a then largely unsuspected "out" side to a popular guitar hero. The original album had nine tracks, but the 20th anniversary edition added six performances left off the original because they could not fit onto an LP. It is, as Metheny observes in the liner notes, a more complete record of the sessions, which also featured Jack DeJohnette on drums, Charlie Haden on bass and Coleman's son Denardo, also on percussion.