Fearless Leader

06.11.15 6:00 PM ET

Jazz Titan Ornette Coleman Stayed at the Front of the Avant-Garde Pack All His Life

The late, great saxophonist and composer began his career getting kicked off bandstands because of his resolute non-conformity. Half a century later, jazz is still catching up.

Ornette Coleman, who died Thursday morning from cardiac arrest at age 85, came across as a thoughtful, soft-spoken man in private life. But he will be remembered as a fiery revolutionary, and the most controversial figure in the jazz world during the second half of the 20th century.

His recordings from the late ’50s and early ’60s defined the avant-garde movement in jazz. Fans still talk about his arrival at New York’s Five Spot in November 1959 as a disruptive moment in the history of modern music. Many embraced Coleman’s saxophony as the next new thing in the music; others grumbled about its radical departure from conventional notions of phrasing and swing. But everyone in jazz had to have an opinion.

Ornette Coleman simply demanded attention. All the opinion leaders came to the Five Spot to size up the newcomer. You could see Norman Mailer, John Coltrane, James Baldwin, and Miles Davis in the audience. Leonard Bernstein even sat in with the band. Some patrons stormed out of the club without finishing their pricey drink; others stayed on and proclaimed the man with a horn a towering genius.

Coleman was no stranger to controversy. Before his rise to fame, he had been shunned by the jazz establishment in Los Angeles. Saxophonist Dexter Gordon literally ordered him off the bandstand. When Coleman tried to sit in with Max Roach’s band, he was kept waiting for four hours, and when he finally came on the bandstand, the other musicians started to pack up their instruments. When Bill Holman let Coleman sit in with his band, the club owner told him he would be fired if he did it a second time.

“Well, we let him sit in again, and the club emptied out again” Holman later told me. “This time she fires us.”

But Les Koenig, owner of Contemporary Records, ignored the skeptics and signed Coleman to a record contract in 1958. The resulting album was so unprecedented that Koenig attached four exclamation points to the title. He called it Something Else!!!! and the title was well deserved.

Years later, I interviewed Walter Norris, the pianist on that record, and he explained his struggles trying to adapt his modern jazz style to Coleman’s even-more-modern saxophone lines. “At every rehearsal Ornette would change what we had done the last time. He would change the structure of the song, or change where the rubato was. And then when we finally showed up for the record date, he changed everything again.”

Coleman eventually found musicians more sympathetic to his artistic vision. His early ’60s band—featuring trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Billy Higgins—remains the best-known of Coleman’s ensembles. In a series of recordings for the Atlantic label, Coleman took bold risks and wrote a new rulebook for jazz improvisation. His most iconoclastic effort of the period, Free Jazz, from 1961, is a milestone in the history of atonal music, and still sounds gnarly and unforgiving today. But Coleman was capable of a wide range of improvisational stances, and could also deliver funky blues lines or even play a Gershwin standard if the situation warranted.

In truth, Coleman had been immersed in these traditional sounds from his earliest days. Born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1930, he got his first exposure to the saxophone at an assembly in middle school. He learned his craft playing in church and school bands, and later apprenticing in blues and jazz groups. Coleman struggled to fit in with these ensembles—his uncompromising vision typically required others to adapt to him—but he retained elements of these musical roots in later avant-garde projects.

After his rise to fame, Coleman continued to surprise fans with his unconventional ways. He learned violin and trumpet, and started incorporating them into his public performances and recordings. He featured his son Denardo as drummer when the youngster was just ten years old. He wrote music for the London Symphony Orchestra.

And he developed his own quasi-mystical theory of music, which he dubbed harmolodics. “Harmolodics,” he explained, “is the use of the physical and mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group.” Back in the ’70s, Coleman hinted that he might give a more complete explanation of his technique in a book called The Harmolodic Theory, but it never appeared.

Coleman is best known for his work from the late ’50s and early ’60s, but I greatly admire his mid-career reinvention of himself as a leader of a funky electric band. His album Dancing in Your Head, released in 1977, mixed the popular fusion sound of the day with an irreverent experimentalism. Here and in subsequent projects, Coleman created an invigorating populist form of avant-garde jazz that could still serve as a blueprint for innovative music today.

In more recent decades, Coleman recorded less often, but still managed to defy expectations. He made music with Pat Metheny and Jerry Garcia. He inserted quotes from Stephen Foster and Richard Rodgers into his improvisations. Some may have seen these gestures as a step back from his progressive leanings, but it was hard not to view them as a continuation of Coleman’s lifelong habit of playing by his own rules.

Even today, when jazz fans talk about radical, cutting edge music, the first name that comes out of their mouths is usually Ornette Coleman. That was true back in the late ’50s, when he first gained attention for his rule-breaking playing, and just as true in the 21st century.

Even as Coleman cut back on his performances and recordings, he still stood as a symbol and role model for the most progressive performers in the idiom. At first glance, this must seem strange to outsiders. How can any movement call itself avant-garde when key components of its paradigm are more than a half-century old?

Yet Coleman’s ongoing presence as an elder statesman of jazz made it seem as if his revolution had never ended. Almost from the start, he embodied the notion of futurism in his music—even the titles of his early albums proclaimed it in big fonts, with names such as Tomorrow is the Question! and The Shape of Jazz to Come. Now jazz players have to shape their personal futures without his presence as a touchstone. But even after his departure, his seminal work reminds us how it’s done.