Legendary jazz musician, Ornette Coleman passed away on Thursday June 11th, 2015, in Manhattan, N.Y. A representative for the Coleman family told The New York Times that the innovative alto saxophonist passed after going into cardiac arrest. He was 85.
Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on March 9, 1930. While studying at I.M. Terrell High School, he began to learn to play the saxophone at age 14, using an alto sax that his mother, Rosa, had given him. Three of his future bandmates — saxophonist Dewey Redman and drummers Charles Moffett and Ronald Shannon Jackson — also graduated from the same high school graduates, and other notable alumni were the saxophonists King Curtis, Prince Lasha and Julius Hemphill; John Carter, who was known for his clarinet playing; and Red Connor, a bebop tenor saxophonist, according to The New York Times.
After graduation, and a stint in several Texas-based rhythm-and-blues bands playing tenor and alto saxophone, Coleman joined – and was later fired from – Silas Green From New Orleans, a popular traveling minstrel troupe, in Natchez, Miss. The reason for his termination in 1949, according to The Times, was that he had been caught teaching one of his fellow bandmate how to play bebop saxophone.
By 1953, Coleman had relocated to Los Angeles, and the following year he married the poet Jayne Cortez, with whom he had a son, Denardo. (Coleman and Cortez would later divorce in 1964.) And, he remained in Los Angeles for the next six years, before relocating to New York City, according to The New York Times.
In 1958, the saxophonist recorded his first album, Something Else!!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman, which was released on Contemporary Records. He would release a second album, Tomorrow Is The Question!, before parting ways with the label. Those albums were the predecessors to some of his best-known and best-loved recordings like the 1959 release The Shape Of Jazz To Come on Atlantic Records, and another early release on Atlantic records, Change Of The Century.
After stepping away from active performing in New York during the early 1960’s, he returned to the stage in 1965, and would return to the studio that next year to record The Empty Foxhole. This 1966 album is significant, because it featured Coleman’s then-10 year old son, Denardo, on drums. And, after buying a building in SoHo, Ornette Coleman expanded his career by venturing into the business of concert production.
The 1970s found Coleman playing with the London Symphony Orchestra, traveling to Morocco to play with the famed Jajouka musicians, and branching out into new electric territory later in the decade with his new band Prime Time.
Throughout the 1980s, he continued to release albums and blaze trails within the jazz music community, and by the early 1990s Coleman’s playing could be heard on film soundtracks like “Naked Lunch,” according to The New York Times.
During this time, his musical contributions and accomplishments were also gaining well-deserved recognition. In 1984, he was awarded a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master fellowship and was made a MacArthur Foundation fellow in 1994.
Even with these accolades, Coleman continued to pursue new musical ventures; in 2004, in his mid-70s, he started a new band and founded Sound Grammar, a new label. In 2007, he would be honored twice – as he won the Pulitzer Prize, and was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys – and he went on to perform at that year’s Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee. Much to the audience’s alarm, Coleman passed out onstage at the festival, and had to be treated for heat stroke at a local hospital, according to The New York Times.
Seven years later, in June 2014, at a tribute concert organized by his son, Denardo, the older Coleman gave his last public appearance.
“One of the things I am experiencing is very important,” he said in his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech, according to The Times. “And that is: You don’t have to die to kill, and you don’t have to kill to die. And above all, nothing exists that is not in the form of life, because life is eternal with or without people, so we are grateful for life to be here at this very moment.”