Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman (March 9, 1930– June 11, 2015) was an American jazz saxophonist, violinist, trumpeter, and composer. He was one of the major innovators of the free jazz movement of the 1960s, a term he invented with the name of his 1961 album. His “Broadway Blues” has become a standard and has been cited as a key work in the free jazz movement. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1994. His album Sound Grammar received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for music.
From the beginning of his career, Coleman’s music and playing were in many ways unorthodox. His approach to harmony and chord progression was far less rigid than that of bebop performers; he was increasingly interested in playing what he heard rather than fitting it into predetermined chorus-structures and harmonies. His raw, highly vocalized sound and penchant for playing “in the cracks” of the scale led many Los Angeles jazz musicians to regard Coleman’s playing as out-of-tune. He sometimes had difficulty finding like-minded musicians with whom to perform. Nevertheless, pianist Paul Bley was an early supporter and musical collaborator.
In 1958, Coleman led his first recording session for Contemporary, Something Else!!!!: The Music of Ornette Coleman. The session also featured trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Don Payne and Walter Norris on piano.
1959 was a notably productive year for Coleman. His last release on Contemporary was Tomorrow Is the Question!, a quartet album, with Shelly Manne on drums, and excluding the piano, which he would not use again until the 1990s. Next Coleman brought double bassist Charlie Haden – one of a handful of his most important collaborators – into a regular group with Cherry and Higgins. (All four had played with Paul Bley the previous year.) He signed a multi-album contract with Atlantic Records, who released The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959. It was, according to critic Steve Huey, “a watershed event in the genesis of avant-garde jazz, profoundly steering its future course and throwing down a gauntlet that some still haven’t come to grips with.” While definitely – if somewhat loosely – blues-based and often quite melodic, the album’s compositions were considered at that time harmonically unusual and unstructured. Some musicians and critics saw Coleman as an iconoclast; others, including conductor Leonard Bernstein and composer Virgil Thomson regarded him as a genius and an innovator.” Jazzwise listed it #3 on their list of the 100 best jazz albums of all time.