I am not the man to write an obituary about Ornette Coleman, but what the hell, I’ll try to tell you what he meant to me anyway.
If you don’t know him, Ornette Coleman ostensibly invented free jazz, that is the style of jazz that abandoned the previous rules of jazz and embraced free improvisation (i.e. doing whatever you want). Initially, this was just in his solos, deviating from the conventions of the genre which said you had to stay in certain ranges and keys during your solo. Coleman’s early quartet, featuring him on alto (a plastic one!), Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. Jazz history says these guys invented free jazz in 1959; they had no piano and the soloists improvised outside of conventional jazz logic. (Coleman’s few efforts before this quartet were a little more traditional.) I don’t know that it’s entirely true that they invented the genre – efforts towards freer music had been made since the late ’40s, but nobody had really put it altogether prior to this band.
If you listen to The Shape of Jazz to Come now, it doesn’t really sound like free has for decades – it sounds relatively conventional – and that’s because it was an initial step. Coleman and others went way farther afield soon after and now free jazz is essentially just free improvisation: doing whatever you want to do. Sometimes it works, oftentimes it doesn’t. Coleman’s initial band was still operating with some structure.
For me personally, Coleman’s early music was some of the first free I ever listened to (along with Coltrane’s) and he helped knock down the few remaining walls I had in terms of deciding what was and wasn’t music. After listening to even early Coleman, it became harder and harder to label some things noise and other things music. Sure, there were other bands that helped me along this path- (and within jazz it was Albert Ayler probably most of all, that taught me what can be considered music – but Coleman showed me how an artist could both break rules and maintain others at the same time, and how that is often more beautiful (and successful) than breaking as many rules as possible. To this day, my a favourite “post free” – music made in the shadow of the free jazz revolution, for lack of a better term – music both breaks with and honours tradition, and that is something I think Coleman did, at least initially.
He was one of the most important figures in jazz in the second half of the 20th century – behind Davis, Mingus, Trane and maybe nobody else – and he opened so many doors for other people, it’s hard overstate his influence.
I’m sorry what I have to say is inadequate. He will be missed.