Born in Texas in 1930, Ornette Coleman is a jazz saxophonist and composer, who also occasionally performs on the violin and trumpet. Best known for his contribution to free jazz in the 1960s, his style is described as a modern take on the crying sounds of blues music.
Ornette Coleman first began playing tenor saxophone at the age of 14 in bebop and rhythm and blues groups. He left Texas in 1949 in order to play with a band led by Silas Green. After an incident in which he was attacked while on tour, his tenor saxophone was destroyed. This prompted him to switch to alto saxophone, which would become his chief instrument. Following his departure from Green’s band, he moved to Los Angeles to join Pee Wee Crayton, supporting himself by working odd jobs while pursuing a career in jazz.
Coleman struggled to find an audience for much of his early career, as other musicians and audiences disliked his experimental style. He frequently played outside of the scale, leading some to dismiss his playing as out-of-tune. However, this sound eventually came to define his style and transform Coleman into the influential saxophonist he is today.
By the late 1950s, Ornette Coleman began to increase in popularity, which eventually landed him a large contract with Atlantic Records. His first album with the label, The Shape of Jazz to Come, has been called a crucial factor in the development of avant-garde jazz. While he was not without detractors, he received vocal support from such figures as Virgil Thompson and Leonard Bernstein, who considered him a musical genius.
In the 1960s, Coleman helped popularize the burgeoning free jazz movement. Coleman preferred to play his own compositions rather than jazz standards, causing his discography to swell to huge proportions. He notably recorded a piece called Free Jazz, which at nearly 40 minutes remains the longest recorded jazz performance of all time. He recorded with famed jazz label Blue Note Records throughout the 1960s. Among his recordings with the label was The Empty Foxhole, in which he performed with his 10-year-old son, who later frequently collaborated with his father. Since then, Coleman has partnered with numerous other artists of divergent styles, including Jackie McLean, The Grateful Dead, Lou Reed, Yoko Ono and Howard Shore.
Today, Coleman continues to stretch the limits of jazz, challenging himself by playing with younger artists and experimenting with new styles and musical cultures. Many of his compositions have evolved into minor jazz standards and numerous modern saxophonists claim him as an inspiration. Coleman has been the recipient of a Grammy award for lifetime achievement, the Miles Davis Award, The Dorothy and Lilian Gish Prize and an honorary doctorate from the University of Michigan.
Below is a great example of the crying sound he’s known for: