Rev­o­lu­tion­ary brought new sound to jazz

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Don Heck­man

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 f lowed — 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 f lur­ries and high har­mon­ics to mul­ti­phon­ics 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-minute­long 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 “avant­garde” 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, 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.

Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

SAX­O­PHON­IST Or­nette Cole­man pio

neered “free jazz.”

Ken Hively Los An­ge­les Times

PO­LAR­IZ­ING FIG­URE Cole­man’s ap­proach to im­pro­vi­sa­tion at­tracted crit­i­cism, but he won sev­eral awards, in­clud­ing a Pulitzer.

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