I’m especially sad to report this news that the jazz world has lost one of its most visionary artists, Ornette Coleman. He died today in NYC of a heart attack at 85. I knew him a bit through friends and was fortunate enough to hear him play as well as hang out with him a bit. He TRULY epitomized the cool jazz cat.
Coleman was a pioneer in the more experimental aspects of jazz, branching out into be-bop, free jazz (a term he coined) and other way-out styles, like his peers John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. He started out on the circuit in New Orleans and, after returning home to Forth Worth briefly, he went to L.A., where he played with a rhythm and blues band.
Coleman performed and recorded up until this death. In the ’70s, he went into rock and funk styles with the group Prime Time. He also won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2005 live improvised recording Sound Grammar, the first time a recording had won the honor, along with a MacArthur Genius award. In a ’97 interview with philosopher Jacques Derrida, Coleman looked back on his childhood and how it nearly led him to abandon music altogether;
“I was in Texas, I started to play the saxophone and make a living for my family by playing on the radio. One day, I walked into a place that was full of gambling and prostitution, people arguing, and I saw a woman get stabbed—then I thought that I had to get out of there. I told my mother that I didn’t want to play this music anymore because I thought that I was only adding to all that suffering. She replied, “What’s got hold of you, you want somebody to pay you for your soul?”
You can hear “Congeniality” from The Shape of Jazz to Come below. Bye Ornette, you were the man.