Ornette Coleman, a controversial alto saxophonist and composer, through an undoubtedly unique set of circumstances was ‘spared’ conventional musical education. Despite the fact that he played the saxophone some fifteen years before he made his first recording, Coleman never learned to read or write conventional musical notation correctly. In the history of human civilization this is not unusual. However in the context of our Western civilization, a musician’s total immunity to the notational aspect of music must be considered somewhat of an exception. And while, in the early days of jazz, non-reading improvising musicians were the rule rather than the exception, the reverse is true today, and most jazz musicians can read at least moderately well. Not so for Coleman. On the contrary, it is precisely because Coleman was not ‘handicapped’ by conventional music education that he has been able to make his unique contribution to contemporary music.
Ornette Coleman was born in Ft. Worth, Texas in 1930. He started on Alto Sax when he entered high school, playing rhythm and blues on it and later on tenor. While still a teenager, he was introduced to the bob revolution, which significantly broadened his musical horizons, although his performance opportunities remained limited to r & b gigs. Coleman went on the road around 1950, but his original and somewhat eccentric style was not conducive to permanent employment. For the next half-decade he continued to struggle to be heard.
Los Angeles proved to be the laboratory for what came to be called free jazz. There began to gather around Ornette a core of players who would figure largely in his life: trumpeter, Don Cherrry, bassist Don Haden, drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins also joined the intense exploratory rehearsals in which Coleman was honing his vocabulary on a plastic sax, despite the lack of gigs. Coleman’s approach began to attract other players. Bebop Red Mitchell brought Coleman’s compositions to Lester Koenig of Contemporary Records. Koenig was so impressed by both the composer and the performers that he arranged an audition for Coleman’s rehearsal band and recorded them the following year. Bassist Percy Heath and later John Lewis (both of Modern Jazz Quartet) managed to catch Coleman at the Jazz Cellar in LA and came away very impressed. In 1959, Lewis arranged a recording contract with Atlantic Records, and later a trip east to participate in the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts in August. Coleman’s recording on Atlantic of his composition “Lonely Woman,” has become a jazz classic and has been recorded by numerous jazz artists, including the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet. Eventually with two more albums recorded on Atlantic, Coleman and his quartet (Cherry, Haden and Higgins) came to New York for a two-week engagement at the Five Spot in November 1959. That controversial appearance at the Five Spot became legendary; Coleman’s occasional use of the non-tempered scale and his abandonment of chord changes, and the improvised interplay amongst the members of the quartet produced strong reactions (both pro and con) from musicians, critics and listeners.
Soon after his return from Morocco in 1973, and later in Nigeria, Coleman created a new sound that was a full of frontal harmolodic attack, a double whammy of drums and electric bass, dubbed Prime Time. He later formed the Harmolodic Label. Over the course of the decade Harmolodic released a number of works beginning with “Tone Dialing,” on which a Bach prelude is rendered harmolodically.
Coleman soon began to study the trumpet and violin expanding the scope of composing to include string quartets, woodwind quintets and symphonic works. Coleman used a Guggenheim Foundation grant to write a symphony “Skies of America.” In 1994, he was also awarded the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.
Atlantic/Rhino records have released Ornette Coleman’s early, historical recordings on a multiple CD set “Beauty is a Rare Thing.”
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