With the possible exception of John Coltrane, there is no more controversial artist among our ten trailblazers than saxophonist-composer-multi-instrumentalist-bandleader Ornette Coleman. Perhaps the most enduring icon of the so-called jazz avant-garde, Ornette Coleman is also by turns one of the least understood and most critically acclaimed jazz artists. Befitting his Texas roots, Coleman’s initial efforts were in blues and R&B bands, though even there he was often criticized as being “different.” Despite that, and though he has participated in far-flung musical enterprises of original composition in ensuing years, he still maintains a decidedly bluesy edge in his alto saxophone playing.
In the early 1950s he migrated from his native Texas to Los Angeles where his original ideas and new way of playing met with near total rejection among both the jazz cognoscenti and especially among more conventional jazz musicians. Certain established musicians were even known to object vehemently to Coleman and his playing.
Despite this rejection he found a small coterie of musicians who were interested in joining him in his explorations. These included bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Billy Higgins, and trumpeter Don Cherry. In 1959, after an invitation from pianist John Lewis and others to participate in the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts, the band went to New York to begin a legendary stint at the Five Spot Cafe. His music by turns enthralled and disgusted musicians who flocked to the club to find out what was so new about Ornette Coleman and his troupe from California. Coleman was steadily developing a system of music that he termed harmolodics, which found a welcome home on Atlantic Records, where he recorded a significant series of albums.
In the 1970s Ornette developed an electric band he called Prime Time, a double quartet that also featured his son Denardo on drums. The music became thicker, propelled by electric basses and guitars, currently also including keyboards. Over the past 20 years Ornette Coleman concerts became rare exceptions, particularly in the U.S., and Coleman has seemingly been concentrating more of his energies on composition than performance. Ever the iconoclast he has been spotted in recent years performing with diverse video backdrops, rappers, and southern Indian percussionists.
Ornette Coleman's Quartet plays live in 1974.