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Fort Worth-born and Terrell High School grad Ornette Coleman, a jazz legend, dies

🕐 6 min read

Legendary jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman died June 11 from cardiac arrest in New York City. He was 85.

Coleman was born in Fort Worth in 1930 and began playing saxophone while attending I.M. Terrell High School. He played in various clubs around town, getting to know other Fort Worth musical greats, such as Dewey Redman and King Curtis Ousley.

Coleman moved to New Orleans and later to Los Angeles where he honed the style he called free jazz. In the 1950s he moved to New York where he signed with Atlantic Records. Under the Atlantic label, Coleman released his breakthrough albums “The Shape of Jazz to Come” and “Free Jazz.” The Ken Burns Jazz documentary called “Free Jazz,” released in 1960, “undoubtedly the single most important influence on avant-garde jazz in the ensuing decade.”

Coleman won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2005 recording “Sound Grammar.” During his six-decade career he also received a MacArthur Genius award, a Grammy, and the Miles Davis award.

Coleman is honored on the Fort Worth Independent School District’s Wall of Fame.

Coleman on YouTube

Betty Dillard

Ornette Coleman, innovative force in jazz and modern music, dies at 85//

By Matt Schudel

(c) 2015, The Washington Post.

Ornette Coleman, whose early efforts at “free jazz” were equally praised and condemned by listeners, but who came to be recognized as one of the most original and innovative forces in modern music, rewarded late in his career with the Pulitzer Prize and a lifetime achievement Grammy Award, died June 11 in New York City. He was 85.

His death was announced by a publicist, Ken Weinstein. The cause was not disclosed.

Coleman was an alto saxophonist and composer whose 1959 album, “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” had a revolutionary impact on jazz. He and his band created a new style of musical freedom by abandoning the traditional structure of harmony and chords.

In 1960, Coleman released an album called “Free Jazz,” and the phrase came to represent a new movement in music, marked by a spontaneous, sometimes frenetic sense of improvisation.

Coleman preferred the term “harmolodic,” meaning that he combined harmony, movement and melodic motifs into a flowing, fluid and unanchored style of music evolving from a central idea.

“I want everyone to have an equal relationship to the results,” he said in a 2007 interview with the Associated Press. “I don’t tell them what or how to play. … Sometimes the drum is leading, sometimes the bass is leading.”

From 1958 to 1962, Coleman released 10 albums, which had a profound influence on the work of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Paul Bley and other jazz musicians. But from the beginning, there were no neutral views of Coleman and his music: He was considered either a genius or a buffoon.

“No musician has ever roiled the jazz establishment quite as much as Coleman,” critic Gary Giddins wrote in the New Yorker in 2008.

Many listeners — and fellow musicians — could not grasp the often dissonant, seemingly off-key sounds coming from Coleman’s saxophone and his accompanying groups. After one performance, drummer Max Roach reportedly punched Coleman in the mouth. Trumpeter Miles Davis openly questioned Coleman’s sanity. Another jazz trumpeter, Roy Eldridge, concluded, “I think he’s jiving, baby.”

But Coleman also had many admirers, including conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein and writer and classical composer Virgil Thomson. Pianist John Lewis, a founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet, called Coleman the most influential jazz musician since Charlie Parker.

Several of his early compositions, including “Peace,” “Lonely Woman” and “Turnaround,” have become jazz standards.

In time, Coleman reached beyond jazz into other musical forms. He began to explore electronic and funk styles in the 1970s and 1980s. He also turned to and composed for woodwind quintet, string quartet and various small-jazz ensembles.

His 1972 symphony, “Skies of America,” has entered the classical repertoire.

Coleman’s musical experiments broadened through the years to include styles and traditions from all over the world. His 1977 composition “Dancing in Your Head” relied on Moroccan folk musicians. He performed on stage with the Grateful Dead, released an album with guitarist Pat Metheny and was often featured in festivals devoted to his music in Europe, Japan and, belatedly, the United States, including a concerts with Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra in 2004.

He was named a jazz master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1984 and received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1994.

His 2006 album, “Sound Grammar,” which drew on Igor Stravinsky and the blues as influences, received the Pulitzer Prize for music composition in 2007. The same year, Coleman was honored with more than 30 other musicians at the Kennedy Center as “living jazz legends,” and he received a Grammy for lifetime achievement — even though none of his recordings ever received an individual Grammy.

His marriage to poet Jayne Cortez ended in divorce. Their son, Denardo Coleman, began playing drums with his father at age 10 and continued to collaborate with him throughout his life.

Coleman continued to write and perform music until shortly before his death.

“I try and play a musical idea that is not being influenced by any previous thing I have played before,” he told New Yorker jazz writer Whitney Balliett. “You don’t have to learn to spell to talk. The theme you play at the start of a number is the territory, and what comes after, which may have very little to do with it, is the adventure.”

Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman was born March 9, 1930, in Fort Worth, Texas. He was a child when his father died, and his mother did domestic housework.

He began to play saxophone in his teens. According to his biographer, John Litweiler, he was reprimanded for improvising during his school band’s performance of John Philip Sousa’s “The Washington Post” march.

Coleman joined traveling rhythm-and-blues groups in his native Texas and, even then, sought to create an original style in his music and his appearance. As early as 1950, he wore his hair to his shoulders and would play solos that often led to confusion and dismay from his bandleaders and listeners.

After one performance in Louisiana, he was reportedly beaten by a mob, who destroyed his saxophone.

By 1952, Coleman had settled in Los Angeles, where he worked as an elevator operator and embarked on an independent study of music. He played a plastic alto saxophone, and when he tried to sit in at jam sessions was often mocked or ignored by more established musicians.

But Coleman persevered on his lonely path, seeking to play his saxophone in microtones that defied the standard notion of pitch and key.

“Perhaps the chief impediment to greater popularity,” Giddins wrote in the New Yorker, “is the very quality that centers his achievement: the raw, rugged, vocalized, weirdly pitched sound of his alto saxophone. Considered uniquely, radiantly beautiful by fans, it is like no other sound in or out of jazz.”

Softspoken but quietly persuasive in his approach to music, Coleman surrounded himself with a group of like-minded musicians, including trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, who formed the nucleus of his early groups.

Coleman’s concept of “free jazz” was more consciously composed than the unchanneled blips and screeches that later became identified with the style. Instead, his music seemed more controlled and directed, even as it flowed in unexpected directions.

His music was never for the masses, but its strange beauty continues to exert a haunting, ever deepening influence of the sound of our time.

“When he is out of tune with the rest of the musical world,” Giddins wrote of Coleman, “he is always in tune with himself.”

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