Ornette Coleman, one of jazz’s most influential and innovative musicians and composers, died Thursday, June 11, 2015 at 85.
Coleman, whose primary instrument was the alto saxophone, was a pioneer of the avant-garde movement of the ’50s and ’60s, helping to steer jazz away from bebop and taking both melodic and rhythmic interpretation in new directions.
The “free jazz” that Coleman spearheaded — a new approach to melody and harmony, essentially coined as a term by 1961’s Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, one of his landmark albums – was but one of the contributions that made his work both controversial and fundamental to the progress of his form.
“The whole notion of postmodern jazz is essentially his creation,” says veteran jazz critic and author Will Friedwald of Coleman. “But he is very different from other jazz innovators in one key aspect: Musicians influenced by Charlie Parker tend to play like Charlie Parker, but most of the musicians who were inspired by Coleman sound nothing like him.”
Coleman’s music continued to evolve through the decades, incorporating elements of funk and rock in the ’70s and ’80s when he worked intermittently with the group Prime Time. Coleman also teamed with artists from outside his genre, including Jerry Garcia and Lou Reed. In 2007, Coleman was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his album Sound Grammar.
For Friedwald, Coleman was “easily the most important figure in jazz” since Parker. “Virtually everyone in the music, from Miles Davis to John Coltrane to Cecil Taylor to Wynton Marsalis to Keith Jarrett, owes a huge debt to him.”