Ornette Coleman got confused about the first alto saxophone his mother gave him when he was about 14. He didn’t understand that because of transposition between instruments, a C in the piano’s “concert key” was an A on his instrument. When he found out the truth, a lifelong suspicion of the rules of Western harmony began.
“I’ve learned that everyone has their own movable C,” he said in 1995.
The Fort Worth native, a performer and composer who led the free jazz movement of the 1960s, died Thursday at age 85 at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City. The cause was cardiac arrest, according to a family representative.
Coleman was a prolific creative force over six decades, releasing more than 50 albums. He was an admirer of bebop pioneers Charlie Parker and John Coltrane who became a controversial innovator in his own right and wound up a lauded elder statesman of music.
Pushing beyond bebop, he played jazz unfettered from its last rules of harmony and rhythm and gave the bold style its name with the 1961 release Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation. His honors included a Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement and a MacArthur Foundation genius grant.
Coleman was born March 9, 1930, in Fort Worth. He attended I.M. Terrell High School, where, briefly, the self-taught sax player blew in the high school band; legend has it he was booted for trying to inject some swing into the stiff marching-band sound. Three of his future bandmates, saxophonist Dewey Redman and drummers Charles Moffett and Ronald Shannon Jackson, would later graduate from the same school.
From there, Coleman performed with local R&B bands and started his own, the Jam Jivers, whose playlist consisted of Louis Jordan tunes and other jump-blues numbers, according to Redman.
He moved on in 1949 to New Orleans, then in 1953 to Los Angeles, where “he just blossomed,” Redman told Howard Mandel, author of Miles, Ornette, Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz. Coleman had discovered Parker, who liberated jazz from the bandstand, and managed to “play Bird just like Bird,” Redman said.
But by the late ’50s, Coleman was beholden to no influence or predecessor. In 1959, he released The Shape of Jazz to Come on Atlantic Records and changed the genre. It was bebop unleashed, the blues unhinged — familiar at first but increasingly, strikingly out there as it sprinted toward the finish line.
He was such a sensation by the time he made his New York City debut that year that critics were invited to preview the first night. His Free Jazz album cemented his standing. Ultimately, Coltrane covered Coleman — that’s how much of a titan he was.
“I didn’t think what I was doing was so unique,” Coleman recalled in 2003. “It’s only to share and grow. Knowledge is useless unless you share it.”
This new music had its detractors, who contended that free jazz divorced jazz from popular appeal and made it unapproachable and elitist. Miles Davis called Coleman “all screwed up inside.” Roy Eldridge, in 1961, said, “I listened to him all kinds of ways. I listened to him high, and I listened to him cold sober. I even played with him. I think he’s jiving, baby.”
Coleman soldiered on. In the ’70s, he explored rock and funk styles with the group Prime Time. He was one of the few jazz performers to appear on Saturday Night Live, in 1979. One of his most significant recordings, Opening the Caravan of Dreams, was made with Prime Time in his final hometown appearance in Fort Worth in 1983.
His eminence was doubly confirmed in 2007 when he was awarded his Grammy and his Pulitzer, the latter for the live collection Sound Grammar. “I was shocked to realize that I have actually made logic into something that has meaning, which I call music,” he said at the time.
Coleman, who lived in Manhattan, is survived by a son and a grandson.