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.