Ornette Coleman’s Legacy

Ornette Coleman, the legendary jazz musician who died June 11 at the age of 85-years-old, is well known for his influence in the jazz world. Originally, he stated his work was a response to the legendary Charlie Parker. But he later would blaze his own trail to a new jazz revolution. He repeatedly said that jazz was more than a type of music and was rather a philosophy of life. He would take the bebop Parker was so famous for and redesign it into something else entirely.

Martin Wilson said, “I believe that what Ornette Coleman is playing will affect the whole character of jazz music profoundly and pervasively.”

And it did. His unusual legacy began when he first achieved success with his 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come. It showed the many deviations that would later dominate his music: a focus on the melody with fewer structured harmonies and his idea of “harmolodics,” or the intersection between harmony, movement, and melody. Even though his later work would be even more groundbreaking, it still attracted controversy. His appearance at the School of Jazz before the album came out was the subject of much debate. Wilson declared his work revolutionary, but others thought it tonal, repetitious, and meandering. One thing Coleman did well was attract attention, and before long, established jazz musicians were being asked by reporters about his music.

The album that would ultimately define his work, Free Jazz, came a year later. Ornette Coleman, along with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins, Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, Scott LaFaro, and Ed Blackwell, recorded a “double quartet” album. Using the early stereo technique, each quartet played in one channel. What made the album so unusual was its emphasis on breaking down the rules of musical theory. Chord changes, keys, and tempos were discarded and replaced with the idea of playing by emotion. It had no firm structure and no rehearsal sessions (besides the later “First Take,” which would be released in the 70s and on the 1998 CD release of the album). Every musician involved gets their own solo session. Even now, listening to Free Jazz is an intense experience.

Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Ornette Coleman was lucky enough to see himself become accepted as a revolutionary. His later work, whether pioneering world music or dabbling in funk, classical music, and collaborations with rock musicians such as Lou Reed, was often a direct result of that effect. But it was no less than he deserved.

[Photo by Scott Gries/ImageDirect]