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|Birth name||Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman|
|Born||March 9, 1930|
Fort Worth, Texas, U.S.
|Died||June 11, 2015 (aged 85)|
New York City
|Genres||Avant-garde jazz, free jazz, free funk, jazz fusion|
|Instruments||Alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, violin, trumpet|
|Labels||Atlantic, Blue Note, Verve|
|Associated acts||Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Scott LaFaro, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Dewey Redman, Denardo Coleman, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Jamaaladeen Tacuma|
Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman (March 9 or 19, 1930 – June 11, 2015) was an American jazz saxophonist, violinist, trumpeter, and composer. In the 1960s, he was one of the founders of free jazz, a term he invented for his album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation. His "Broadway Blues" and "Lonely Woman" have become standards and are cited as important early works in free jazz. His album Sound Grammar received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Music.
He attended I.M. Terrell High School, where he participated in band until he was dismissed for improvising during "The Washington Post" march. He began performing R&B and bebop on tenor saxophone and started The Jam Jivers with Prince Lasha and Charles Moffett.
Eager to leave town, he accepted a job in 1949 with a Silas Green from New Orleans traveling show and then with touring rhythm and blues shows. After a show in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he was assaulted and his saxophone was destroyed.
He switched to alto saxophone, which remained his primary instrument, first playing it in New Orleans after the Baton Rouge incident. He then joined the band of Pee Wee Crayton and traveled with them to Los Angeles. He worked at various jobs, including as an elevator operator, while pursuing his music career.
In California he found like-minded musicians such as Ed Blackwell, Bobby Bradford, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins, and Charles Moffett. He recorded his debut album, Something Else!!!! (1958) with Cherry, Higgins, Walter Norris, and Don Payne. During the same year he belonged briefly to a quintet led by Paul Bley that performed at a club in New York City. By the time Tomorrow Is the Question! was recorded soon after with Cherry, Higgins, and Haden, the jazz world had been shaken up by Coleman's alien music. Some jazz musicians called him a fraud, while conductor Leonard Bernstein praised him.
1959: The Shape of Jazz to Come
In 1959 Atlantic released The Shape of Jazz to Come. According to music critic Steve Huey, the album "was a watershed event in the genesis of avant-garde jazz, profoundly steering its future course and throwing down a gauntlet that some still haven't come to grips with." Jazzwise listed it No. 3 on their list of the 100 best jazz albums of all time.
Coleman's quartet received a long – and sometimes controversial – engagement at Five Spot jazz club in New York City. Leonard Bernstein, Lionel Hampton, and Modern Jazz Quartet were impressed and offered encouragement. Hampton asked to perform with the quartet; Bernstein helped Haden obtain a composition grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. But trumpeter Miles Davis said Coleman was "all screwed up inside", although he recanted this comment and became a proponent of Coleman's innovations.
Coleman's early sound was due in part to his use of a plastic saxophone. He bought a plastic horn in Los Angeles in 1954 because he was unable to afford a metal saxophone, though he didn't like the sound of the plastic instrument at first.
On the Atlantic recordings, Coleman's sidemen in the quartet are Cherry on cornet or pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden, Scott LaFaro, and then Jimmy Garrison on bass; and Higgins or his replacement Ed Blackwell on drums. The complete recordings for the label were collected on the box set Beauty Is a Rare Thing.
1960: Free Jazz
In 1960, Coleman recorded Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, which featured a double quartet, including Don Cherry and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, Haden and LaFaro on bass, and both Higgins and Blackwell on drums. The album was recorded in stereo with a reed/brass/bass/drums quartet isolated in each stereo channel. Free Jazz was, at nearly 40 minutes, the longest recorded continuous jazz performance to date and was one of Coleman's most controversial albums. The music features a regular but complex pulse, one drummer playing "straight" while the other played double-time; the thematic material is a series of brief, dissonant fanfares. A series of solo features for each member of the band, but the other soloists are free to chime in as they wish. In the January 18, 1962 issue of Down Beat magazine, in a review titled "Double View of a Double Quartet," Pete Welding gave the album five stars while John A. Tynan rated it zero stars. Time has been kinder to the album though with AllMusic listed it as one of "20 Essential Free Jazz albums."
Coleman intended "free jazz" as simply an album title. But his growing reputation placed him at the forefront of jazz innovation, and free jazz was soon considered a new genre, though Coleman has expressed discomfort with the term. Among the reasons he may have disapproved of the term is that his music contains composition. His melodic material, although skeletal, recalls melodies that Charlie Parker wrote over standard harmonies. The music is closer to the bebop that came before it than is sometimes popularly imagined.
1960s–70s: Avant-garde and harmolodic funk
After his quartet disbanded, he formed a trio with David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on drums. He extended the sound of his music, introducing string players and playing trumpet and violin, which he played left-handed. He had little conventional musical technique and used the instruments to make large, unrestrained gestures. His friendship with Albert Ayler influenced his development on trumpet and violin. Charlie Haden sometimes joined this trio to form a two-bass quartet.
Coleman signed with Blue Note and recorded At the Golden Circle Stockholm. In 1966, he recorded The Empty Foxhole with his son, Denardo Coleman, who was ten years old. Freddie Hubbard and Shelly Manne regarded this as an ill-advised piece of publicity on Coleman's part. Despite his youth, Denardo Coleman had studied drumming for several years. His technique was unrefined but enthusiastic, owing more to pulse-oriented free jazz drummers like Sunny Murray than to bebop drummers. He became his father's primary drummer in the late 1970s.
Coleman formed another quartet. Haden, Garrison, and Elvin Jones appeared, and Dewey Redman joined the group, usually on tenor saxophone. On February 29, 1968 in a group with Haden, Ed Blackwell, and David Izenzon Coleman performed live with Yoko Ono at Albert Hall. One song was included on the album Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (1970)
He continued to explore his interest in string textures – from Town Hall, 1962, culminating with the Skies of America album in 1972. (Sometimes this had a practical value, as it facilitated his group's appearance in the UK in 1965, where jazz musicians were under a quota arrangement but classical performers were exempt.)
Coleman, like Miles Davis before him, took to playing with electrified instruments. The 1976 funk album Dancing in Your Head, Coleman's first recording with the group which later became known as Prime Time, prominently featured electric guitars. While this marked a stylistic departure for Coleman, the music maintained certain similarities to his earlier work. These performances had the same angular melodies and simultaneous group improvisations – what Joe Zawinul referred to as "nobody solos, everybody solos" and what Coleman called harmolodics – and although the nature of the pulse was altered, Coleman's rhythmic approach did not.
In the 1980s, albums like Virgin Beauty and Of Human Feelings continued to use rock and funk rhythms, sometimes called free funk. Jerry Garcia played guitar on three tracks from Coleman's 1988 album Virgin Beauty: "Three Wishes", "Singing in the Shower", and "Desert Players". Coleman joined the Grateful Dead on stage in 1993 during "Space" and stayed for "The Other One", "Stella Blue", Bobby Bland's "Turn on Your Lovelight", and the encore "Brokedown Palace". Another collaboration was with guitarist Pat Metheny, with whom Coleman recorded Song X (1985); though released under Metheny's name, Coleman was essentially co-leader (contributing all the compositions).
In 1990, the city of Reggio Emilia in Italy held a three-day "Portrait of the Artist" featuring a Coleman quartet with Cherry, Haden, and Higgins. The festival also presented performances of his chamber music and the symphonic Skies of America. In 1991, Coleman played on the soundtrack for David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch; the orchestra was conducted by Howard Shore. It is notable among other things for including a rare sighting of Coleman playing a jazz standard: Thelonious Monk's "Misterioso". Two 1972 (pre-electric) Coleman recordings, "Happy House" and "Foreigner in a Free Land", were used in Gus Van Sant's 2000 Finding Forrester. He released four records in 1995 and 1996, and for the first time in many years worked regularly with piano players (either Geri Allen or Joachim Kühn).
In September 2006 he released a live album titled Sound Grammar with his son, Denardo Coleman, and two bassists, Greg Cohen, and Tony Falanga. This was his first album of new material in ten years and was recorded in Germany in 2005. It won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for music, Coleman being only the second jazz musician to win the prize.
Personal life, death, and subsequent material loss
Coleman died of a cardiac arrest at the age of 85 in New York City on June 11, 2015. His funeral was a three-hour event with performances and speeches by several of his collaborators and contemporaries.
Awards and honors
- Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame, 1969
- MacArthur Fellowship, 1994
- Praemium Imperiale, 2001
- Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, 2004
- Honorary doctorate of music, Berklee College of Music, 2006
- Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, 2007
- Pulitzer Prize for music, 2007
- Miles Davis Award, Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, 2009
- Honorary doctorate by the Graduate Center, CUNY, 2008
- Honorary doctorate of music, University of Michigan, 2010
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