Saxophonist Ornette Coleman dies aged 85

Ornette Coleman, recognised as one jazz music’s most influential musicians and composers, a powerful and seismic innovator, has died in New York.

Saxophonist Ornette Coleman, recognised as one of jazz music’s most influential musicians and composers, a powerful and seismic innovator, has died in New York aged 85 following a cardiac arrest.

Ornette, who also played violin and trumpet, rose to prominence after the intensely creative bebop era late in the 1950s producing a bold statement, the album ‘The Shape Of Jazz To Come’. This work changed the narrative around the music. It literally had the effect of doing what it claimed, reshaping the jazz landscape with new harmonic possibilities. Ultimately it caused some polarity amongst jazz fans, but retrospectively it is regarded in most circles as a work of genius. Coleman’s emerging band on this recording included musicians who are now regarded as greats in their own right including Don Cherry (father of Love Supreme Festival confirmed pop star Neneh) playing cornet, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins.

The most used sound bites associated with Ornette Coleman’s work are “free jazz” and “new vocabulary” as he changed the language and phrasing of the music with movements, unexpected melodies, fluid and intense technical ideas outside accepted styles and convention. Interestingly he revealed in an interview that his unconventional approach to melody was inspired by a Jewish Ukrainian, New York-based, entertainer called Josef "Yossele" Rosenblatt who was popular in the early 20th Century. Rosenblatt's early recordings of unusual bending, impossible, 'blue' notes had a profound emotional impact on Coleman and helped define his approach.

He had many admirers in many fields of music also including the current President of Blue Note Records. Don Was told Jazz FM’s Chris Philips that Coleman’s ‘At the "Golden Circle" Stockholm’ recordings for the Blue Note label changed his life and the way he thought about music.

Bristol based jazz outfit Get The Blessing began as an Ornette Coleman cover band and in fact drew their name from Ornette Coleman’s 1958 piece ’The Blessing’, which he recorded with a band assembled while working as a store elevator operator in Los Angeles. Some of Coleman’s iconic titles have seeped into the vernacular and been parodied by bands and genres as far reaching as punk. Rock star Lou Reed was a renowned Ornette Coleman fan, as is David Bowie. Coleman also explored associations and ideas outside of jazz music working with the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia.

British violinist Nigel Kennedy saw Ornette Coleman play live on multiple occasions and expressed his sadness saying, "He was the real deal, a very important person in moving all music forward."

Late in 2014 a band named New Vocabulary released a self titled album which featured recent session recordings by Ornette. These were released allegedly without his permission and latterly followed by a law suit from lawyers working on his behalf. Read more on that story in this earlier Jazz FM news piece.

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