Rarely does a musician emerge who dramatically changes the way we listen to music, but such a man is Ornette Coleman. Ever since the late 1950's when he burst on the New York scene, his artistic vision has helped to expand contemporary musical boundaries. Most people think of Ornette Coleman as the revolutionary saxophonist who created "free jazz", but in truth, his music and his approach to making music have always defied simple categorization.
Born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1930, Ornette Coleman bought his first saxophone at the age of 14. Having taught himself how to play the instrument, he performed with various rhythm and blues bands and by the time he was nineteen he left Fort Worth to hook up with Silas Green's traveling minstrel show. It was not until Coleman joined Pee Wee Crauton's band that he was able to make it out of the honky-tonks and blues bars of the South. Apparently, even then, the young saxophonist style was controversial, and rumor has it that by the time the band reached Los Angeles, Crayton was paying Coleman not to solo. Bebop ruled jazz in the 1950's and initially while in Los Angeles, Coleman, like everybody else, playing bebop at jam sessions. "I could play and sound like Charlie Parker note-for-note, but I was only playing it from method. So I tried to figure out where to go from there," Coleman said
As he started exploring musical possibilities of extending and fusing elements of honky-tonk, blues, funk, and bebop, Coleman created personal musical vocabulary free from the prevailing conventions of harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic structures. Coleman's musical style so alienated him from the jazz community that musicians literally walked off stage whenever Coleman showed up to play. In retrospect, Coleman's innovations, later to be known as "harmolodics", not only helped to revitalize jazz by pointing a new direction away from the rigid role of harmony in bebop, but also established his place in a select group of major 20th Century American composers, such as Charlie Parker, Harry Partch, Charles Ives and John Cage.
In Los Angeles during the early 50's Coleman had to support himself with menial jobs. However, he was fortunate enough to find a core of talented musicians, trumpeters Don Cherry and Bobby Bradford, drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, and bassist Charlie Haden, who embraced his musical concepts. Although the musicians rarely found opportunities to perform the music, they spent a great deal of time improvising and rehearsing.
Things changed dramatically for Coleman in 1958 with the release his debut album, Something Else, and while he could still be scorned, he could not be ignored. One year later a second album, Tomorrow is the Question, was released and the original quartet was firmly established: Coleman on alto sax, Don Cherry on trumpet, Billy Higgins on drums, and Charlie Haden on bass.
In November of 1959, the quartet made its legendary New York debut at the Five Spot in Greenwich Village. The music was unlike anything ever heard before. Since neither bassist or drummer functioned in a conventionally rhythmic sense and with the absence of a pianist providing chordal harmonies, the band members were given tremendous room in which to improvise and to interact. The music, termed "free jazz", upset many musicians and deeply polarized the jazz community. But the well publicized musical feuds, (Coleman was actually physically abused by an extremely irate, but notable, musician), caught the attention of the New York intelligencia and the initial two week engagement turned into six months. On one side of the controversy, leading jazz musicians were openly hostile, calling him a charlatan, and on the other side, people like composer- conductor Leonard Bernstein, composer Virgil Thompson and numerous writers and painters were heralding the artistic impact of his arrival.
By 1960, the quartet recorded two more albums, Free Jazz and The Shape of Jazz to Come, but by the mid 1960's, Atlantic Records decided to severe its contract with Coleman and he withdrew from the public eye. During this period, aside from teaching himself to play the trumpet and the violin, Coleman turned his attention to composing in different musical forms. He wrote several string quartets, woodwind quintets and symphonic works, and like George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman helped to break down the bountries between "modern jazz" and "serious concert" music. The first public performance of his string quartet, "Dedicated to Poets and Writers", took place at New York's Town Hall in 1962, however, performances of his works were scarce and most of the material from this period has yet to be performed or recorded. RCA Red Seal did release Form and Sounds in 1968 which featured a woodwind quintet by the same title, performed by the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet and two symphonic chamber works entitled "Saints and Soldiers" and "Space Flight", performed by the string of the Philadelphia Orchestra. This release helped clear the way for the 1972 Columbia release of Coleman's Skies of America symphonic suite performed by the London Philharmonic. Although the work is scored jazz ensemble and orchestra, labor regulation in England would not permit the ensemble to play, and so the recording actually represents a concerto version of the work. The work received its New York debut, with the complete ensemble, at Lincoln Center on July 4th, 1972 with the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Thompson.
During the 1970's Coleman's musical visions continued to expand. In 1975, Coleman formed his current band, Prime Time, and now the "free jazz/classical composer" was creating very danceable music that combined elements of jazz, funk, R & B, and rock with an unusual mix of instruments: two guitarists, two drummers, two bassists, and Coleman on sax, violin and trumpet. Prime Time's multi-layered melodies, polytonal, and polyrhythmic textures, defined by Coleman as "Harmolodics", continued to shape the music of the period, not only jazz. Coleman's influence affected many rock musicians of the '70's, most notably, Frank Zappa. Coleman and the Prime Time has since toured extensively throughout North America, Europe and Asia and have recorded several albums on the A & M Horizon, Antilles, Artists House, and Caravan of Dreams labels.
Around the same period, Coleman became increasingly interested in music from diverse African cultures. He traveled throughout Africa and in 1977, A & M Records released Dancing in Your Head featuring, on one side, field recordings that Coleman made while playing with tribal musicians of Joujouka, Morocco, and on the other side, Prime Time's now legendary first offering. In the 1980's, Coleman continued to surprise the musical world with diverse projects. In 1983, Coleman was commssioned by Caravan of Dreams to revise and to complete Skies of America. The work premiered September 29th at the Civic Center in Fort Worth, Texas, his home town, with conductor John Giordano leading the Fort Worth Symphony and Prime Time.
The same year, Coleman was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy to write a chamber piece for their "Meet the Modern" series. The resulting piece was entitled "The Sacred Mind of Johnny Dolphin" and the work was performed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic with Lucas Foss conducting. The work recently received its European debut at the Camden Jazz Festival in London.
In July 1985, in Hartford, Real Art Ways presented the most thorough examination of Coleman's work date. The week-long festival included performances by Prime Time, screenings of Shirley Clark's documentary film, Ornette: Made in America and of selections from Coleman's home video archives which included sessions in Morocco and Nigeria, concerts by former bandmembers James (Blood) Ulmer, Ed Blackwell and Don Cherry, and performances of Coleman's recently composed chamber music, including "The Sacred Mind of Johnny Dolphin", for double string quartet, trumpet and percussion, and "Time Design", a work for string quartet and percussion dedicated to the memory of Buckminster Fuller.
The critical success of the Hartford festival led to several subsequent commissions in 1986. For solo violin, Coleman wrote a work entitled "Trinity", for solo mandolin he wrote "Notes Talking", and the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University commissioned "In Honor of NASA and Planetary Soloist", a work written for the Kronos Quartet and Joseph Celli on oboe, English horn, and Mukha Veena (an Indian Wind instrument). Coleman was also commissioned by Tuffts University to write "DNA Meets E=MC2", which was performed by Prime Time and his original Quartet.
In 1986 and 1987 also saw two important record releases for Coleman: "Song X" recorded with guitarist Pat Metheny, and the Caravan of Dreams release of In All Languages, a double album featuring both Prime Time and the Original Quartet. Between these recordings and the chamber music festivals, Coleman's was again at the forefront of public attention. "Song X" was selected as the Down beat's "Records of the Year", Prime Time as top "Electric Jazz Group", and Coleman was chosen as top "Alto Sax" of the year and "Jazz Musician of the Year". In addition, Rolling Stones Magazine honored Coleman as "Jazz Artist of the Year".
Coleman's wide ranging musical contributions are not only reflected by the music represented on the more than forty albums, but also by the many bandmembers, inspired by Coleman's vision, who have gone on to develop indipendent careers, such as James (Blood) Ulmer, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins, and Charlie Haden. Ornette Coleman has always had an unusual ability to resurface at times when musical establishments were in need of revitalization. For more than thirty years, the multi-stylistic elements in Coleman's music have appealed to a wide range of people, and in today's age of changing demographic, his music offers programs that relate to culturally diverse audiences. Coleman's music has always reflected the richness and range of musical expression and today he speaks as a mature artist at the peak of his power.
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