History of Jazz

Ornette Coleman

(b. 1930)
Free Jazz

Ornette Coleman (1959)Ornette Coleman began to play alto sax professionally as a teenager in blues bands in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. In his twenties, he moved to Los Angeles where he worked as an elevator operator to support his jazz ambition, studying music theory books and performing at out-of-the-way jazz clubs. Several members of the Modern Jazz Quartet heard him performing at one of these obscure nightclubs and helped him gain greater notoriety.

As a jazz artist and composer, many listeners thought Coleman was a genius, while others thought he was a fraud. Following his groundbreaking work on other albums in the late 1950's, his 1960 album Free Jazz formalized the free jazz trend. It included a 37-minute collective improvisation performed by a double quartet -- two jazz quartets improvising simultaneously! Coleman did not include a pianist or guitarist in the quartets since one of his main goals was for his music to have harmonic independence.

Did you know?

  • Ornette Coleman won the first Guggenheim Fellowship for jazz in 1967.
  • In addition to saxophone, Coleman also played trumpet and violin.
  • Coleman was often thrown off the bandstand early in his career because his music was so "weird." He continued to play because he believed so strongly in his music.

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