A pioneer of experimental jazz, one of the most contentious musicians of his time and the first person to win a Pulitzer Prize for recording. On Thursday morning in Manhattan, one of the last remaining jazz greats of the mid-20th century, Ornette Coleman, died of cardiac arrest at 85.
Coleman was at the forefront of the changing nature of jazz in the late '50s and early '60s as it took on a more free-form style. His career in music, spanning over six decades, saw him travel to New Orleans, Fort Worth, Texas (his hometown), Los Angeles and New York City.
In New York City, his deal with Atlantic Records came to fruition with the groundbreaking albums, The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959 and Free Jazz in 1960. The Free Jazz record, according to Ken Burns' authoritative documentary, Jazz, "was undoubtedly the single most important influence on avant-garde jazz in the ensuing decade." Those two records established a distinct Coleman style that came to define his music.
Coleman was a tireless musician, performing and recording until his death, though he slowed down in his later years. Like some other jazz greats — Miles Davis, for one — Coleman dipped his toes into different genres in later decades. In 2007, he broke further ground, winning a Pulitzer for his live recording, Sound Grammar, that followed his MacArthur Genius award in 1994.
While accepting his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Coleman said in his characteristically enigmatic way:
One of the things I am experiencing is very important. 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.
Listen to The Shape Of Jazz To Come:
[Cover image via Scott Gries/Hulton Archive]