How Ornette Coleman Shaped the Jazz World: An Introduction to His Irreverent Sound

Ornette Cole­man “arrived in New York in 1959,” writes Philip Clark, “with a white plas­tic sax­o­phone and a set of ideas about impro­vi­sa­tion that would shake jazz to its big apple core.” Every big name in jazz was doing some­thing sim­i­lar at the time, invent­ing new styles and lan­guages. Cole­man went fur­ther out there than any­one, infu­ri­at­ing and frus­trat­ing oth­er jazz pio­neers like Miles Davis.

He called his the­o­ry “Har­molod­ics,” a Buck­min­ster Fuller-like meld­ing of “har­mo­ny,” “move­ment,” and “melody” that he coined in the 1970s. The man­i­festo explain­ing his ideas reads like psy­che­del­ic Dada:

—I play pure emo­tion

—In music, the only thing that mat­ters is whether you feel it or not

—Blow what you feel – any­thing. Play the thought, the idea in your mind – Break away from the con­ven­tion and stag­na­tion – escape!

—My music doesn’t have any real time, no met­ric time. It has time, but not in the sense that you can time it. It’s more like breath­ing – a nat­ur­al, freer time. Peo­ple have for­got­ten how beau­ti­ful it is to be nat­ur­al. Even in love.

—Music has no face. What­ev­er gives oxy­gen its pow­er, music is cut from the same cloth.

—It was when I real­ized I could make mis­takes that I decid­ed I was real­ly on to some­thing.

—I have found that by elim­i­nat­ing chords or keys or melodies as being the present idea of what you’re try­ing to feel i think you can play more emo­tion into the music. in oth­er words, you can have the har­mo­ny, melody, into­na­tion all blend­ing into one to the point of your emo­tion­al thought.

—There is a music that has the qual­i­ty to pre­serve life.

Coleman’s 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come pre­saged not only what jazz would, and could, become but also out­sider rock, from Cap­tain Beef­heart to The Roy­al Trux, and exper­i­men­tal music of all kinds. Cole­man resent­ed the idea the music should be sub­ject to cat­e­go­riza­tion or for­mal con­straints, or even that musi­cians need­ed have for­mal train­ing at all. All music is sound, he says, and sound is “as free,” he joked with Clark in a 2015 inter­view, “as the gas that pass­es through your butt.”

This irrev­er­ent atti­tude is typ­i­cal of Coleman’s approach to his art. Some of the high­lights of his ear­ly career, as laid out in the Poly­phon­ic video above—recording an entire album with his 10-year-old son on drums; get­ting punched by the drum­mer after his first New York gig—make him sound like jazz’s first punk, before there was any such thing as punk. He would go on to sit for a famous inter­view with Jacques Der­rida and become one of a hand­ful of musi­cians to win a Pulitzer Prize. The enig­mat­ic genius’s “audac­i­ty, vision, and tal­ent” has made him one of the most myth­i­cal fig­ures in music, a rep­u­ta­tion that is more than well-deserved. Get a clos­er look at his lega­cy at the top.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Philoso­pher Jacques Der­ri­da Inter­views Jazz Leg­end Ornette Cole­man: Talk Impro­vi­sa­tion, Lan­guage & Racism (1997)

When Jazz Leg­end Ornette Cole­man Joined the Grate­ful Dead Onstage for Some Epic Impro­vi­sa­tion­al Jams: Hear a 1993 Record­ing

Hear Ornette Cole­man Col­lab­o­rate with Lou Reed, Which Lou Called “One of My Great­est Moments”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.


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  • Howard Mandel says:

    Josh, join the Jazz Jour­nal­ists Asso­ci­a­tion!

  • David S says:

    I’d like to punch this idi­ot­ic writer’s teeth out, such an awful, igno­rant and plain stu­pid arti­cle on such a great pio­neer. Mediocre inter­net hacks writ­ing about a great jazz musi­cian, see­ing Ornet­te’s work in the same sen­tence as rock, punk, met­al is true garbage. Find anoth­er hob­by.

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