Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Coleman was raised in Fort Worth, Texas, where he began performing R&B and bebop initially on tenor saxophone. He later switched to alto, which has remained his primary instrument. Coleman's timbre is perhaps one of the most easily recognized in jazz: his keening, crying sound draws heavily on blues music.
Coleman moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950s. He worked at various jobs, including as an elevator operator, while pursuing his musical career. Coleman's music and playing were in many ways, even from the beginning of his career, rather unorthodox: Coleman was more concerned with relative pitch than "proper" equal temperament; his sense of harmony and chord progression are not as rigid as most swing music or bebop performers', and was easily changed and often implied. Many Los Angeles jazz musicians regarded Coleman's playing as out-of-tune, and he sometimes had difficulty finding like-minded musicians with whom to perform. Pianist Paul Bley was an early supporter.
In 1958 Coleman led his first recording session for Something Else! The Music of Ornette Coleman. The session also featured trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Don Payne and Walter Norris on piano. Norris was sympathetic to Coleman's ideas, but has been criticised for not quite grasping them (though, in fairness, it must be noted that few grasped Coleman's ideas this early on), and further, a piano tied Coleman to equal temperament; consequently, this album is often regarded as something of a false start for Coleman.
The Shape Of Jazz To Come
1959 found Coleman very busy: He abandoned the piano entirely for Tomorrow Is The Question!, a quartet featuring early supporter Shelly Manne. Coleman encountered double bassist Charlie Haden — perhaps his most important collaborator — and formed a regular group with him, Cherry, and Higgins. The quartet recorded The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959, with Atlantic Records, who had signed Coleman to a multi-album contract.
The Shape of Jazz to Come was, according to critic Steve Huey "a watershed event in the genesis of avant-garde jazz, profoundly steering its future course and throwing down a gauntlet that some still haven't come to grips with."  While definitely — if somewhat loosely — blues based and often quite melodic, the album's songs were harmonically unusual and unpredictable. Some musicians and critics saw Coleman as talentless hack; others regarded him as a genius.
Coleman's Quartet received a lengthy — and sometimes controversial — engagement at New York City's famed Five Spot jazz club. Such notable figures as The Modern Jazz Quartet, Leonard Bernstein and Lionel Hampton were favorably impressed, and offered encouragement. (Hampton was so impressed he reportedly asked to perform with the quartet.) Opinion was, however, divided: Trumpeter Miles Davis famously declared Coleman was "All screwed up inside," and Roy Eldridge stated he'd listened to Coleman drunk and sober, but couldn't understand or enjoy his music either way.
On his best-known early recordings for the Atlantic Records, Coleman led a piano-less quartet with Cherry on trumpet, usually Charlie Haden, but sometimes Scott LaFaro on double bass and either Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell on drums. These recordings are collected in a boxed-set, 'Beauty is a Rare Thing'.
In 1961, Coleman recorded Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, which featured a "double quartet," including Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet. The record was recorded in stereo, with a reed/brass/bass/drums quartet isolated in each stereo channel. Free Jazz was, at nearly 40 minutes, the lengthiest jazz recording to date. The music generally featured jazz-oriented melody and steady, swinging pulse, but Coleman's unusual use of harmony and improvised group structure remained controversial.
Coleman intended Free Jazz as an only album title, but his growing reputation placed him at the forefront of jazz innovation, and free jazz was soon considered a new genre, though Coleman has expressed discomfort with the term.
Among the reasons Coleman may not have entirely approved of the term Free Jazz is that his music contains a considerable amount of composition. His melodic material, although skeletal, strongly recalls the melodies that Charlie Parker wrote over "standard" harmonies, and in general the music is closer to the bebop which came before it than is sometimes popularly imagined. Like Thelonious Monk, Coleman very rarely played standards, concentrating on his own compositions, of which there seems to be an endless flow.
After the Atlantic period and into the early part of the 1970s, Coleman's music became more angular and engaged fully with the jazz avant-garde which had developed in part around Coleman's innovations.
His quartet dissolved, and Coleman formed a new trio with David Izenzon on bass, and Charles Moffet on drums. Coleman began playing trumpet and violin; he initially had little conventional technique , and used the instruments to make large, unrestrained gestures. His friendship with Albert Ayler influenced Coleman's development on trumpet and violin. (Haden would later sometimes join this trio to form a two-bass quartet.)
Coleman signed with legendary jazz record label Blue Note Records and released a number of recordings.
In 1966, Coleman was criticised for recording The Empty Foxhole, a trio with Haden, and Coleman's son Denardo Coleman — who was ten years old. Some regarded this as perhaps an ill-advised publicity ploy on Coleman's part, and judged the move as a misstep. Others, however, noted that despite his youth, Denardo had studied drumming for several years, and noted his technique — which, though unrefined, was respectable and enthusiastic — owed more to "pulse" oriented free jazz drummers like Sunny Murray that to bebop drumming. Denardo has matured into a respected musician, and has been his father's primary drummer since the late 1970s.
Prime Time and Recent Career
Later, however, Coleman, like Miles Davis before him, took to playing with electrified instruments in a jazz fusion mode. Albums like Virgin Beauty and Of Human Feelings used rock and funk rhythms, sometimes called free funk . Electric guitars were prominent, but the music was, at heart, rather similar to his earlier work. These performances have the same angular melodies and simultaneous group improvisations — what Joe Zawinul referred to as "nobody solos, everybody solos" and what Coleman calls "harmolodics " — and although the nature of the pulse has altered, Coleman's own rhythmic approach has not.
The mid-1990s saw a flurry of activity from Coleman: He released four records between 1995 and 1996, and for the first time in nearly forty years, Coleman worked regularly with piano players (either Geri Allen or Joachim Kühn ). Many critics noted that it took jazz piano nearly that long to catch up with Coleman.
Some critics have suggested Coleman's frequent use of the vaguely-defined term "harmolodics" is a musical MacGuffin: a red herring of sorts designed to occupy critics over-focused on Coleman's sometimes unorthodox compositional style.
Coleman has rarely performed on other musicians' records: Albums with Jackie McLean in 1967 (on which Coleman played trumpet), James Blood Ulmer in 1978, Pat Metheny in 1985, Joe Henry's Scar in 2001 and Lou Reed in 2003 are among the few exceptions.
Although now an elder statesman of jazz, Coleman continues to push himself into unusual playing situations, often with much younger musicians or musicians from radically different musical cultures, and continues to perform regularly. An increasing number of his compositions, while not ubiquitous, have found their way into the standard jazz repertoire ; including "Lonely Woman", "Peace", "When Will The Blues Leave?", "The Blessing", and "Law Years", among others. He has influenced virtually every saxophonist of a modern disposition, and nearly every such jazz musician, of the generation which followed him.
In 1988 John Zorn released Spy Vs Spy, an album consisting of radical reappraisals of Coleman songs.
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