Arts & Culture

Ornette Coleman, master of ‘free jazz,’ dies at age 85

Jazz legend Ornette Coleman poses for a photograph at his loft in New York, Feb. 3, 2010.
Jazz legend Ornette Coleman poses for a photograph at his loft in New York, Feb. 3, 2010. AP

Jazz great, musical innovator and Fort Worth native Ornette Coleman has died.

He was 85.

The cause of death was cardiac arrest, as reported by The New York Times.

Saxophonist Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman, who pushed the boundaries of jazz, was born March 9, 1930, to Randolph and Rosa Coleman, the last of four children. Mr. Coleman came of age in extreme poverty in a racially segregated Fort Worth. The Colemans were a working-class family, one dedicated to the church and enamored of music.

In 1940, Mr. Coleman heard Sonny Strain’s Sultans of Swing perform at George Washington Carver Elementary School, and as he watched the musicians with their instruments, everything changed.

“I asked [Strain] what it was,” Mr. Coleman told the Star-Telegram in 2003. “He said it was a saxophone. I thought it was a toy. I went home and told my mother I would really like to have one. She said, ‘You can, if you work and save some money.’ So I made me a shoeshine box and started shining shoes.”

After he acquired his first saxophone, Mr. Coleman began performing with regularity around Fort Worth — his first steady gig was with a 50-piece group from the Greater St. James Baptist Church.

He also logged time in the I.M. Terrell High School band, although disciplinarian instructor G.A. Baxter often kicked him out for putting a little too much swing in the John Philip Sousa marches: “All of us who were into jazz probably got put out a few times — Coleman, more,” his cousin James Jordan told the Star-Telegram in 2003.

Gigging around town

While still a high school student (he graduated from I.M. Terrell in 1948), Mr. Coleman found his footing in Fort Worth’s nightclubs — the Zanzibar, the China Doll, the Paradise Inn — playing alongside the likes of Donnell Cole, Buster Turner and Big Joe McNeely, quickly moving from re-creations of Charlie Parker’s bebop style to something unique.

In 2003, Mr. Coleman recalled his first post-high-school gig, performing at an all-white nightclub, which didn’t exactly pan out: “The guy started saying, ‘Give ’em vanilla. Give ’em vanilla.’ I thought he meant play sweet or something. So I started playing more strongly the way I was playing. But of course, I lost that job.”

He left Fort Worth the first time in 1949, first settling in New Orleans and later in Los Angeles. After a brief return home, he ventured out to Los Angeles again, where bassist and soon-to-be collaborator Charlie Haden first saw him perform.

“He took out a plastic horn and started to play, and the whole room lit up for me,” Haden said in a 2004 National Public Radio interview. “It was like the heavens opened up for me.”

Controversial style

In 1957, the style of music that Mr. Coleman was creating, “free jazz” — characterized by the All Music Guide as “having dispensed with many of the rules as far as pitch, rhythm, and development are concerned” — was first captured on tape during a concert in Vancouver. Later, his style would be dubbed “harmolodics.”

“I didn’t think what I was doing was so unique,” Mr. Coleman told the Star-Telegram in 2003. “It’s only to share and grow. Knowledge is useless unless you share it.”

Indeed, Haden’s blissful reaction was an exception to the rule — Mr. Coleman’s avant-garde rewiring of jazz, as heard on his landmark 1958 debut, Something Else!!!, wasn’t met with universal acclaim at first. (Mr. Coleman signed with Atlantic Records in 1959, releasing the aptly titled The Shape of Jazz to Come.)

Miles Davis famously called Mr. Coleman “all screwed up inside.” And in 1961, Roy Eldridge said: “I listened to him all kinds of ways. I listened to him high, and I listened to him cold sober. I even played with him. I think he’s jiving, baby.”

Mr. Coleman was undeterred by the naysayers and would go on to chase his muse across the decades, releasing more than 50 albums and performing with a host of jazz luminaries.

In 1983, Mr. Coleman defined harmolodics for DownBeat magazine: “The use of the physical and the mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group. … Harmony, melody, speed, rhythm, time and phrases all have equal position in the results that come from the placing and spacing of ideas.”

Grammy and Pulitzer

His final hometown appearance was the 1983 grand opening of the now-shuttered but still-missed jazz club Caravan of Dreams — his performance of Skies Over America with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. As recently as 2010, Mr. Coleman, seconded by his associates, said he would love to return and perform in his hometown, but nothing was ever scheduled.

In 2007, he won both a lifetime-achievement Grammy and the Pulitzer Prize.

“I was shocked to realize that I have actually made logic into something that has meaning, which I call music,” Mr. Coleman told the Star-Telegram of his Pulitzer.

His final approved release was the 2006 live collection Sound Grammar. Mr. Coleman and his guardian, his son Denardo, filed a federal lawsuit last month against System Dialing Records for the release of New Vocabulary — allegedly without Mr. Coleman’s consent.

A deluxe box set of a 2014 tribute concert is reportedly being planned for release this fall.

As a Star-Telegram reporter was preparing to leave Mr. Coleman’s Garment District loft in 2010, the 80-year-old legend reaffirmed his boundless appetite for life and learning.

“I don’t know how long I’ll live,” he said, “but I’d rather die to live than live to die.”

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Preston Jones, 817-390-7713

Twitter: @prestonjones

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