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Ornette Coleman

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(1930-) Saxophonist and Composer

Audio sample Law Years
Recorded 1971
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)


Ornette Coleman
Image courtesy of Don Schlitten
Ornette Coleman began playing alto saxophone at the age of 14, and developed a style predominantly influenced by Charlie Parker. His early professional work with a variety of southwestern rhythm-and-blues and carnival bands, however, seems to have been in a more traditional idiom. In 1948 he moved to New Orleans and worked mostly at nonmusical jobs. By 1950 he had returned to Fort Worth, after which he went to Los Angeles with Pee Wee Crayton's rhythm-and-blues band. Wherever he tried to introduce some of his more personal and innovative ideas he was met with hostility, both from audiences and musicians. While working as an elevator operator in Los Angeles he studied (on his own) harmony and theory textbooks, and gradually evolved a radically new concept and style, seemingly from a combination of musical intuition born of southwestern country blues and folk forms, and his misreadings — or highly personal interpretations — of the theoretical texts.

While working sporadically in some of the more obscure clubs in Los Angeles, Coleman eventually came to the attention of Red Mitchell and later Percy Heath of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Coleman's first studio recording (for Contemporary in 1958) reveals that his style and sound were, in essence, fully formed at that time. At the instigation of John Lewis, Coleman (and his trumpet-playing partner Don Cherry) attended the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts in 1959. There followed engagements at the Five Spot nightclub in New York, and a series of recordings for Atlantic entitled The Shape of Jazz to Come (which included his compositions Lonely Woman and Congeniality) and Change of the Century (with Ramblin' and Free). These recordings, which occasioned worldwide controversy, revealed Coleman performing in a style freed from most of the conventions of modern jazz. His recording Free Jazz (made on 21 December 1960) for double jazz quartet, a 37-minute sustained collective improvisation, was undoubtedly the single most important influence on avant-garde jazz in the ensuing decade. On another recording, Jazz Abstractions (made earlier the same week), Coleman is heard in a variety of more structured pieces, including Gunther Schuller's serial work Abstraction for alto saxophone, string quartet, two double basses, guitar, and percussion.

In 1962 Coleman retired temporarily from performing in public, primarily to teach himself trumpet and violin. His unorthodox treatment of these instruments on his return to public life in 1965 provoked even more controversy and led to numerous denunciations of his work by a number of influential American jazz musicians, including Miles Davis and Charles Mingus. However, Coleman was well received in Europe during his first tour there in 1965, giving a major impetus to the burgeoning European avant-garde jazz movement. In the mid- and late- 1960s he also became interested in extended, through-composed works for larger ensembles, and produced among other pieces Forms and Sounds for Wind Quintet (1965, recorded in England by the Virtuoso Ensemble, 1965) and Skies of America, a 21-movement suite for symphony orchestra (1972).

By the early 1970s Coleman's influence had waned considerably, while John Coltrane's dominance of saxophone styles had correspondingly spread. As Coleman turned increasingly to more abstract and mechanical compositional techniques (as in Skies of America), his playing lost some of its earlier emotional intensity and rhythmic vitality. But a visit to Morocco in 1972 and the gradual influence (especially rhythmic) of certain popular rock, funk, and fusion styles seemed to have revitalized his ensemble performances, a direction clearly discernible in Coleman's powerful electric band Prime Time, founded in 1975. This group first recorded in France in the same year as a quintet, including two electric guitarists, an electric bass guitarist, and a drummer, but thereafter it usually worked as a sextet, with a second drummer; the double bass player Charlie Hadean joined it for its performance at the Newport Jazz Festival New York in 1978, but not for its European tour later that year.

In the 1980s the group has performed and recorded as a septet with two guitarists, two bass guitarists, and two drummers, all amplified. Prime Time's repertory draws on the various musical styles that have influenced Coleman (including Moroccan music, jazz-rock, and free-jazz improvisation). Coleman's own playing, however, a fascinating and basically inimitable amalgam of blues and modal, atonal, and microtonal music, remains unchanged.

From the 1960s Coleman was often joined by his son, the drummer Denardo Coleman (1956-), in concerts and recordings. Although in the 1980s he performs in public only intermittently, the recording Song X (1985) and a tour (1986), both made with Pat Metheny, brought him and his music a degree of attention he had not enjoyed for some years. A film, Ornette: Made in America, directed by Shirley Clarke and compiled from footage made in the 1960s and the early 1980s, was released in 1984, and two concerts entitled Ornette Coleman Celebration took place at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in 1987; the works performed were Notes Talking, for solo mandolin (1986), The Sacred Mind of Johnny Dolphin, for chamber ensemble (1984), Time Design, for amplified string quartet and electric drum set (1983), Trinity, for solo violin (1986), and In Honor of NASA and Planetary Soloist, for oboe, English horn, mukhavina, and string quartet (1986).

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For personal, non-commercial use only. Copying or other reproduction is prohibited.
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