Jazz vi­sion­ary Or­nette Cole­man passes away at 85


What­ever rules in jazz hadn’t been shat­tered by Char­lie Parker and other be­bop artists, Or­nette Cole­man fin­ished off for good.

Cole­man, who died Thurs­day at age 85, brought to jazz the kind of ope­nended, non- nar­ra­tive ap­proach that Jack­son Pol­lock used in paint­ing and James Joyce in books. In the late 1950s, he orig­i­nated “free jazz,” chal­leng­ing the be­bop estab­lish­ment by aban­don­ing the con­ven­tional song form and lib­er­at­ing mu­si­cians to freely im­pro­vise off of the melody rather than the un­der­ly­ing chord changes. Cole­man also broke down the bar­rier be­tween leader and side­men, giv­ing his band mem­bers free­dom to solo, in­ter­act and de­velop their ideas.

Though largely self-taught, Cole­man would cre­ate his own “har­molodic” con­cept of mu­sic, which also be­came a life phi­los­o­phy. The mu­sic de­rived from a uniquely free in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the mu­si­cians, with­out be­ing teth­ered to rigid met­ric or har­monic struc­ture.

“I want ev­ery­one to have an equal re­la­tion­ship to the re­sults,” Cole­man told The As­so­ci­ated Press in a 2007 in­ter­view. “I don't tell them what or how to play. ... Some­times the drum is lead­ing, some­times the bass is lead­ing. ... I don't think I'm the leader, I'm just pay­ing the bills.”

Once so rev­o­lu­tion­ary he drove some lis­ten­ers to phys­i­cal abuse, he be­came a states­man who re­ceived hon­ors pre­vi­ously un­think­able for jazz artists. He was only the sec­ond jazz per­former to win a Pulitzer Prize, cited for his 2006 al­bum “Sound Gram­mar,” and was the rare jazzman voted into the elite Amer­i­can Academy of Arts and Let­ters. He also re­ceived a Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts Jazz Mas­ter award, and a Grammy life­time achieve­ment award, even though none of his record­ings won a com­pet­i­tive Grammy.

Wyn­ton Marsalis de­scribed Cole­man as “a trans­for­ma­tive leg­end in jazz” who was “an ed­u­ca­tor and leader for fu­ture jazz mu­si­cians.” He re­called how as a young trum­peter he once played pri­vately for sev­eral hours with Cole­man one night in New Or­leans.

“Or­nette was some­thing — with a rare kind of home-spun se­ri­ous­ness and pure in­sight­ful­ness that im­me­di­ately made you feel at home,” Marsalis wrote in an email to The As­so­ci­ated Press.

“He said don't worry too much about crit­i­cism and to fo­cus on the sub­tle com­mand of the emo­tion in my sound and to com­mu­ni­cate in the same way a per­son speak­ing might raise an eye­brow or scrunch their face.”

“We’re all happy that we had an op­por­tu­nity to wit­ness the work and life of Or­nette Cole­man, and the hu­man race is bet­ter for it,”" tenor sax­o­phone leg­end Sonny Rollins said.

Harbinger of Prin­ci­ples of Mu­sic?

Cole­man's in­flu­ence ex­tended be­yond the jazz world, inspiring such rock icons as Lou Reed and the Grate­ful Dead.

“Most of the im­pact of his mu­sic has not yet been felt,” Grate­ful Dead singer­gui­tarist Bob Weir said in an email to the AP. “In thirty years, popular mu­sic will be get­ting around to in­cor­po­rat­ing the prin­ci­ples of the mu­sic he was mak­ing 30 years ago.”

Like so many vi­sion­ar­ies, Cole­man suf­fered wait­ing for the world to catch up. Early in his ca­reer, Cole­man's un­con­ven­tional play­ing led to re­jec­tion by the public and his fel­low mu­si­cians, who would walk off the stage when he showed up at jam ses­sions. Cole­man was told he played out-of-tune and didn't know the ba­sics of jazz im­pro­vi­sa­tion.

One in­ci­dent re­mained deeply in­grained in his mem­ory: The night circa 1950 when the sax­o­phon­ist was play­ing with an R&B band at a Louisiana road house and his solo stopped the dancers in their tracks. Cole­man was dragged out­side the club, roughed up and his horn was thrown over a cliff.

“One guy kicked me in my stom­ach ... and said, ‘ You can't play like that!’ He didn't even know what I was do­ing,” Cole­man told the AP. “I de­cided to take my beat­ings un­til I can es­tab­lish where peo­ple can say, ‘Oh don't beat him, lis­ten.’”

Tired of re­jec­tion, Cole­man moved to Los An­ge­les in 1952 and got a job as a depart­ment store el­e­va­tor op­er­a­tor, study­ing mu­sic the­ory on his breaks.

‘Free jazz’

Cole­man, who a decade be­fore the Bea­tles had shoul­der-length hair and a beard, soon found a like-minded group of mu­si­cians, in­clud­ing bassist Char­lie Haden, who had per­formed in his fam­ily's blue­grass band back in Mis­souri; Don Cherry, who played a tiny pocket trum­pet, and drum­mer Billy Hig­gins.

“The first time I played with Or­nette all of a sud­den the lights were turned on for me,” Haden said.

Cole­man recorded his first al­bum “Some­thing Else” in 1958. The new sound caught the at­ten­tion of the Mod­ern Jazz Quar­tet's pi­anist John Lewis, who called Cole­man “the only re­ally new thing in jazz since Char­lie Parker in the mid-’40s.”

Lewis in­tro­duced Cole­man to At­lantic Records pro­ducer Ne­suhi Erte­gun, who re­leased the aptly ti­tled “The Shape of Jazz to Come” in 1959 with Cole­man's pi­ano­less quar­tet. The al­bum in­cluded Cole­man's most fa­mous com­po­si­tion, the bal­lad “Lonely Woman,” with its bluesy wails re­flect­ing the leader’s south­ern roots.

The Novem­ber 1959 New York de­but of Cole­man's quar­tet — with the leader play­ing his plas­tic alto sax­o­phone — at the Five Spot club in Man­hat­tan set off a mu­si­cal firestorm. Cole­man's rad­i­cal new ap­proach had its cham­pi­ons, in­clud­ing Leonard Bern­stein. But many lead­ing jazz mu­si­cians de­nounced him as a char­la­tan. Miles Davis re­marked that “psy­cho­log­i­cally, the man is all screwed up in­side,” a re­mark he later re­canted.

Un­daunted, Cole­man re­leased a se­ries of ground­break­ing al­bums, in­clud­ing the 1961 dou­ble- quar­tet al­bum, “Free Jazz,” with a nearly 40-minute col­lec­tive im­pro­vi­sa­tion.

Cole­man cred­ited his mother with giv­ing him the strength to over­come the ad­ver­sity he faced grow­ing up in a largely seg­re­gated Fort Worth, Texas, where he was born on March 9, 1930.

Cole­man’s fa­ther died when he was 7, and his mother sup­ported the fam­ily on her seam­stress’ in­come. She bought him his first sax­o­phone when he was 14 from money he earned shin­ing shoes and he taught him­self how to play.

As a teenager he was scolded by his church band leader for play­ing hot jazz licks.

“At that time be­bop was just be­ing born and Char­lie Parker was the main man,” said Cole­man. “I said, ‘ Oh man, what kind of mu­sic is that? And I thought I'm go­ing to play that.”

‘Strode across our mu­si­cal soundscape like a fiery comet’

Cole­man once said in an in­ter­view that he could “play and sound like Char­lie Parker note-for-note,” but de­cided he wanted to de­velop his own sound.

In the early 1960s, Cole­man largely left the scene for sev­eral years to teach him­self to play trum­pet and vi­o­lin in an un­ortho­dox style, giv­ing him­self a more col­or­ful sound pal­ette.

He stirred more con­tro­versy when he tapped his 10-year-old son De­nardo to be the drum­mer in his quar­tet in 1966. De­nardo would go on to play reg­u­larly in his fa­ther’s bands.

Cole­man did not be­lieve in lim­its, mu­si­cally or ge­o­graph­i­cally. He jour­neyed to Morocco to play with the Mas­ter Mu­si­cians of Jou­jouka, per­formed with Jerry Garcia and the Grate­ful Dead, and com­posed a con­certo, “Skies of Amer­ica,” that he recorded with the Lon­don Sym­phony Orches­tra.

“Or­nette Cole­man was a colos­sus who strode across our mu­si­cal soundscape like a fiery comet,” Grate­ful Dead drum­mer Mickey Hart said in an email to the AP.

“He played like he was hear­ing far off sig­nals from space and time. ... The Grate­ful Dead was in­spired by his abil­ity to tran­scend con­scious­ness; you were never the same af­ter hear­ing him blow that horn.”

Cole­man said the ti­tle of his Pulitzer­win­ning al­bum “Sound Gram­mar” re­ferred to his life-long search to decode the uni­ver­sal mu­si­cal lan­guage that crosses all bor­ders.

“To me sound is eter­nal ... and there are still some notes that haven't been heard. I don't know where to find them, but I know they are there,” Cole­man said in the AP in­ter­view. AP Na­tional Writer Hil­lel Italie and Mu­sic Writer Mes­fin Fekadu con­trib­uted to this re­port.


In this Mon­day, Oct. 23, 2006, file photo, jazz mu­si­cian Or­nette Cole­man, front, per­forms with his quar­tet on the closing evening of the Skopje Jazz Fes­ti­val, in Skopje, Mace­do­nia.

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