Name at birth: Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman
Saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman was best known as an originator and advocate of Free Jazz, a musical movement that began in the 1950s, beginning with his first album, Something Else!!! (1958). He grew up in Texas, where he began playing in local bands as a teenager. His career took him first to Los Angeles, where he joined with musicians like trumpeter Don Cherry to create a new sound that broke away from bop music of the era. He ended up in New York in 1959, where he made his home base for the rest of his career. Rather than building improvisational solos onto a chord framework, Coleman encouraged improvisation toward the broader "tonal" feel of the music, whether the musicians played in the same key or not. Eventually, Coleman called his style "harmolodic" (harmony + movement + melody), and his musical ideas sharply divided jazz critics of the 1950s and '60s. Over time, he went from being a harshly-criticized upstart to a Grand Old Man of avant-garde jazz. An infrequent performer during much of his career, Coleman's greatest influence may be as a composer; his influence stretches from classical music to progressive rock to post-punk. His early jazz albums include The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959), Change of the Century (1959), Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation (1961) and, much later, Sound Grammar (2006). During the 1970s he played with electric guitarists in the band Prime Time, as well as recording his "Skies of America" with the London Symphony Orchestra, and during the 1980s, he recorded with guitarist Pat Metheny on Song X (1986). Coleman was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1984 and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1994. In 2007, he won a Pulitzer Prize and was given a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement.
In his early days in New York, Ornette Coleman played a plastic saxophone (because he liked the sound), as if his critics didn’t have enough to carp about.