Saxophonist Ornette Coleman, Jazz Legend, Dies at 85


by Ryan Reed

Alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, one of the most innovative composers and performers in jazz history, died Thursday morning in Manhattan at age 85. A representative for the musician’s family cited the cause of death as cardiac arrest, The New York Times reports.

Ornette Coleman’s Time

Coleman’s influence on jazz music is massive. The saxophonist stirred up the jazz scene starting in the late Fifties, setting aside traditional harmonic and rhythmic rules in favor of an avant-garde approach filled with unorthodox solos and musical structures.

Coleman released his debut studio album, Something Else!!!!, in 1958, and drew attention late in the decade with his performances at New York club the Five Spot, amassing both fans and detractors in equal measure. In 1959, he released what many consider to be his recorded masterpiece, The Shape of Jazz to Come – a breakthrough in the development of free and avant-garde jazz.

Coleman continued to experiment and refine his music throughout the 1960s, working with a rotating series of musicians, including trumpeter Don Cherry and Coleman’s son, drummer Denardo. In 1969, he was inducted into Down Beat’s Jazz Hall of Fame. The following decade saw Coleman form Prime Time, a “double quartet” line-up featuring his alto sax backed by two guitarists, two electric bassists and two drummers.

The saxophonist kept recording in subsequent decades, as his influence on jazz – and even the experimental fringes of rock – continued to swell. Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia played on three tracks for Coleman’s 1988 LP, Virgin Beauty.

“His playing has a real purity about it, a real beauty,” Garcia told Rolling Stone of Coleman’s revolutionary playing in 1989. “I think it’s very accessible. But the setting against which it occurs is real dense. Ornette’s music is strangely simple and difficult at the same time. The notes are not difficult. But the harmonic relationships that linger behind them are really deep.”

Coleman’s output slowed in the 21st century, though he made notable guest performances on albums by Joe Henry (2001’s Scar) and Lou Reed (2003’s The Raven). His most recent live LP, Sound Grammar, was released in 2006.

In March of this year, Coleman filed a lawsuit against collaborators Jordan McLean and drummer Amir Ziv for allegedly releasing the 2014 LP New Vocabulary without Coleman’s “consent or knowledge.” A box set of the jazz legend’s “Celebrate Ornette” tribute concert – including performances from Sonny Rollins, Patti Smith, Flea and Coleman himself – will be released this fall.

“All I wanted to do was write music that people would like,” Coleman told Rolling Stone in 1989. “I always told people I was commercial, because I was the only person doing what I was doing. Nobody did it but me. There’s not two Coca-Colas; there’s only one Coca-Cola. I thought of myself on that level.”