The New York Times reports that the alto saxophone great and free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman died this morning in Manhattan after suffering from cardiac arrest. Coleman was 85, and we will not see his like again.
Coleman came from Fort Worth, Texas, and he started out playing saxophone in touring R&B bands as a teenager. Before long, he joined singer Pee Wee Crayton’s band and moved with them to Los Angeles, where his loose and raw style began attracting attention. In 1958, he recorded his first solo album, Something Else!!!: The Music Of Ornette Coleman, which featured him playing with likeminded musicians like Don Cherry and Billy Higgins. Over the next few years, he recorded a few landmark early free jazz albums; both Tomorrow Is The Question! and The Shape Of Jazz To Come came out in 1959, and the improvisational album Free Jazz followed in 1960. On those albums, Coleman established a style that flirted with melody and blues structures while still taking off into unstructured flights.
Through the ’60s, Coleman’s music pushed even further out into the avant-garde, sometimes moving from saxophone to piano. His music sounded chaotic to many, but Coleman spoke with almost impenetrable sophistication about the harmonic theories underpinning his music. In the ’70s and ’80s, he played around with rock and funk, even collaborating with the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia on a few songs. And over time, he gained legend status, even performing on Saturday Night Live in 1979. He was still performing as recently as last year. Below, watch a few of his performances.