Avant-garde jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman has died of cardiac arrest at the age of 85, his family told the New York Times on Thursday. Coleman’s lengthy improvisational suites inspired the “free jazz” movement of the 1960s, and his 1960 album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation gave the genre its name. Early in his career, Coleman’s disdain for traditional chords and melody made him a pariah in the mid-century jazz scene, to the point that he was once beaten outside a club in Los Angeles. (His saxophone was smashed in the assault, and its replacement, a white plastic sax, soon became his trademark.) “I don’t know what he’s playing, but it’s not jazz,” Dizzy Gillespie told the press during Coleman’s career-making residency at New York’s Five Spot Café, while Miles Davis claimed, “The man is all screwed up inside.” The residency, along with Coleman’s groundbreaking album The Shape of Jazz to Come, eventually brought the jazz Establishment around to his unstructured style, and he spent the rest of his career as a respected innovator, experimenting with a child drummer (his 10-year-old son) in the ‘60s, introducing strings and electronic instruments to his sound in the ‘70s, and collaborating with Jerry Garcia in the ‘80s. In 2007, Coleman received a Pulitzer Prize for his album Sound Grammar, as well as a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Ornette Coleman. Photo: Peter Van Breukelen/Redferns