One of the giants of jazz — and the first recording artist to win a Pulitzer Prize — has died. The New York Times reports that the innovative composer and alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman died this morning in Manhattan.
Coleman died of cardiac arrest at 85, the story reports.
“Mr. Coleman widened the options in jazz and helped change its course,” The Times reports. “Partly through his example in the late 1950s and early ’60s, jazz became less beholden to the rules of harmony and rhythm, and gained more distance from the American songbook repertoire. His own music, then and later, became a new form of highly informed folk song: deceptively simple melodies for small groups with an intuitive, collective language, and a strategy for playing without preconceived chord sequences.”
Coleman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his album “Sound Grammar,” becoming the first musician to win the prize for a recording.
“His early work — a kind of personal answer to his fellow alto saxophonist and innovator Charlie Parker — lay right within the jazz tradition and generated a handful of standards among jazz musicians of the last half-century,” The Times notes. “But he later challenged assumptions about jazz from top to bottom, bringing in his own ideas about instrumentation, process and technical expertise.”
Time magazine adds: “Born in 1930 in Fort Worth, Tex., Coleman was a journeyman of jazz — literally and figuratively. He started out on the circuit in New Orleans and, after returning home briefly, he ventured out west to Los Angeles, where he played with a rhythm and blues band. It was there, according to Ken Burns’ authoritative Jazz documentary, that Coleman began to hone his style, which mixed country blues with technical jazz theory.”
The Time magazine report also notes: “In the ’50s, Coleman moved to the Northeast and it was during a stint living in New York City when he signed with Atlantic Records and released the breakthrough albums ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’ in 1959 and ‘Free Jazz’ in 1960. The latter record, as the Burns’ documentary site notes, ‘was undoubtedly the single most important influence on avant-garde jazz in the ensuing decade.’”
Here’s Coleman’s “Free Jazz” album: