Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman

Born March 9, 1930. Fort Worth, Texas.

Died June 11, 2015. New York, New York.

Coleman was an American jazz saxophonist, violinist, trumpeter, and composer. He was the principal founder of the free jazz genre. His 1960 album, entitled, Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, set the name for what became an entire genre.

Coleman played both alto and tenor saxophones as a teenager. He graduated I.M. Terrell High School and joined touring groups of musicians in 1949 mostly playing blues. A job with the touring band of Pee Wee Crayton brought Coleman to Los Angeles where he spent many years working odd jobs while studying music and performing on the side. He slowly made connections in L.A., perhaps most prominently with bassist Charlie Haden, and released his first album entitled Something Else in 1958.  

Alpha from Something Else

In 1958, Coleman released his second studio album, The Shape of Jazz to Come, which was considered a profound and seismic event in contemporary jazz. The album was met with speculation and derision by some and with great enthusiasm by others. Some thought that Coleman, a mostly self taught iconoclast on the scene, was a fraud. Others thought he was reinventing jazz, creating a new inward language for jazz musicians that had new kind of innovative virtuosity not heard since Charlie Parker’s.

Congeniality from The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959)


Focus on Sanity:

Drums: Billy Higgins Double Bass: Charlie Haden Cornet: Don Cherry Producer: Nesuhi Ertegun Alto Saxophone: Ornette Coleman Vocals: Ornette Coleman Composer: Ornette Coleman

Coleman’s approach to line, melody, harmonic structures, and even the timbre of the saxophone (he largely played on a plastic saxophone, which gave an eerily vocal human feel to improvisations) was essentially rejected by the jazz community in L.A. at the time of the early 60’s. Jazz musicians were interested in either Miles Davis’ smoother West Coast Jazz or the wild improvisations that were developing along with technological innovations. Coleman’s style seemed to harken back to bebop in terms of a new ‘salon’ style virtuosic language, but it was rough enough and chromatic enough for many critics to believe that Coleman in fact was faking it. Sadly, Coleman’s virtuosity was not yet understood. Partly, Coleman’s wanting to play on a plastic saxophone helped his critics point to an aspect of his playing inaccurately represented as amateur.

In The Shape of Jazz to Come, Coleman offered a new ‘harmolodic’ theory. Through the 50’s, with the advent of modal jazz, improvisation had been expressed largely around minimal chord progressions. Coleman’s harmolodic theory brought back the idea of ‘changes’ in jazz progressions but instead of changes being predicated upon a set of agreed upon underlying harmonies, Coleman’s idea was that the improvisor could change the changes at any time. The ensemble could react or not, and the improvisor was ‘free’ to change the progression a will. The overlapping of harmonic changes that would occur from the free exchanges between the musicians led to the term ‘Free Jazz’.  

Short Documentary on Ornette Coleman

Despite being controversial, Coleman became known as a free jazz pioneer and an important figure in contemporary jazz. Thanks to Coleman’s innovations, jazz improvisation became more prominent in avante garde classical music styles and the lines between new contemporary music and new jazz began to blur. Artists like John Zorn and Anthony Braxton (both known for contemporary classical and jazz compositions) followed in Coleman’s footsteps, further connecting all modern music of the late 20th Century.

Coleman’s summative work was Sound Grammer (2005) which earned him a Pulitzer Prize. Coleman is still only the second African American composer to have received this award.  

Song X from Sound Grammar (2005)

Ornette Coleman: alto saxophone, violin, trumpet Denardo Coleman:drums, percussion Gregory Cohen: bass Tony Falanga: bass

Our Presentations are over! But there are so many other lives of artists to explore. Here are a few contemporary artists who are alive today, continuing the tradition of jazz, of social activism, of Black innovation and creativity, of social justice and of all the ways that music can connect us, heal our divides, and celebrate our common cause.

Jazzmeia Horn

Makaya McCraven


Ashley Henry:


Jacob Collier: