Ornette Coleman: Free Style

There’s one less giant walking the earth this morning.

Ornette Coleman, who operated on the frontiers of music with his jazz magna carta, died of cardiac arrest at 85 this morning in Manhattan. Coleman created a sound all his own, and backed it up with his own philosophy of sound called “Harmolodics.”

Although he assumed the mantle of a respected jazz innovator over time, earning recognition from organizations with names like Pulitzer and MacArthur, his efforts were not always appreciated. Yet the spears of his critics could never hit the moving targets of Coleman’s confounding style. His style, sounds, and weapons-of-choice (including a white plastic sax and a violin) were in constant evolution.

Below, we pair Coleman’s sartorial evolution with words from the master.

When I heard bebop, I thought ‘Oh, this music is gonna free me from all my sins. [laughs] But it didn’t do that.

Photo: “The Shape Of Jazz To Come” cover photo, 1959
Quote: “Honesty Is Explosive!: Selected Music Journalism,” by Ben Watson, edited by W. C. Bamberger

I didn’t need to worry about keys, chords, melody if I had that emotion that brought tears and laughter to people’s hearts.

Photo: “This Is Our Music cover” cover photo, 1961. Pictured with Donald Cherry, Ed Blackwell, and Charlie Haden.
Quote: “Ornette Coleman: What I’ve Learned,” Esquire, December 4, 2009

The state of surviving in music is more like “what music are you playing.” But music isn’t a style, it’s an idea. The idea of music, without it being a style — I don’t hear that much anymore.

Photo: Ornette Coleman during the “New York Is Now!” session, Englewood Cliffs NJ, April 29, 1968; Photo by Francis Wolff
Quote: “Seeking the Mystical Inside the Music,” by Ben Ratliff for “The New York Times.” September 22, 2006

The music on the record was written and arranged by means of a musical concept I call harmolodic. This means the rhythms, harmonics and tempos are all equal in relationship and independent melodies at the same time.

Photo: “Science Fiction” sessions, 1971
Quote: Ornette Coleman describing “Harmolodics” in his “Dancing In Your Head” liner notes in 1977; via “Harder Bop” blog by Kelly Bucheger

Sound has a much more democratic relationship to information, because you don’t need the alphabet to understand music

Photo: Ornette Coleman “In All Languages” album cover, 1987
Quote: “Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman,” 1997

Maybe someone’s sad about something, and then he hears something that tells him it’s not all like that in the sound. That, to me, is really human. And all a human being can do is help his brother and sister.

Photo: Ornette Coleman at Davies Symphony Hall, 2007
Quote: “Ornette Coleman interview: ‘What is sound?’,” by Steve Smith for “Time Out New York,” September 6, 2006

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David is Wingtip's storyteller. In addition to editing the Modern Gentleman's Blog, he has written for Wax Poetics, The Source, SF Weekly, and the East Bay Express, and others. His inspirations include Rumble Fish, Paul's Boutique, and Balzac. He studied English at the City University of New York at Hunter College and journalism at the University of Southern California. He lives in Berzerkeley with his wife and daughter.

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