Ornette Coleman has been both one of the most influential and one of the most widely criticized innovators of jazz music. The following four quotes regarding Coleman are attributed to musicians actively performing at the time of Coleman's appearance on the scene in 1959:
``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.'' - Roy Eldridge, Esquire, March 1961[5, p.12,]
``Man, that cat is nuts!'' - Thelonious Monk[5, p.16,]
``He's got bad intonation, bad technique. He's trying new things, but he hasn't mastered his instrument yet.'' - Maynard Ferguson[5, p.32,]
``[The day I met Ornette], it was about 90 degrees and he had on an overcoat. I was scared of him.'' - Don Cherry, Jazz, December 1963[5, p.27,]
Born on March 19, 1930, Coleman grew up in Fort Worth Texas, literally on the wrong side of a set of freight train tracks. His father died when he was seven, forcing Coleman to find odd factory jobs, working at night after school let out. His mother scraped enough cash together to buy him his first instrument, an alto saxophone, when he was 14.
Like all of his peers, Coleman started out playing in local R&B and gospel bands, honking out blues choruses while crawling across tables on his knees. He acknowledges that most of the places he ended up playing in had music simply to cover up the gambling - and can remember the Texas Rangers stepping in on a number of occasions to split gambling tables with axes. From 1945 until 1950, he played tenor saxophone (for its greater acceptance at R&B gigs) around the South often getting thrown out of clubs for his already developed unique playing concept:
What is this? That ain't jump blues he's playing - that sound like jazz. The jiving hips and jitterbugging limbs on the dance floor ease up as the audience - all black, segregation still has plenty of time left on the clock down here in Louisiana in 1949 - stare at the teenaged Ornette Coleman juicing up his solo with lines borrowed from the king of bebop himself, Charlie Parker.
Later, half a dozen good ole boys show Coleman how they feel about this new-fangled New York music down here in Baton Rouge. They beat him to the ground, kick him unconscious and bust his saxophone.
The saxophone destroyed by the thugs in Louisiana was Coleman's tenor, with no chance of repair, he switched back to his original alto - which would remain his primary instrument.
Throughout the 1950's, Coleman began to develop his unique vision of the way jazz should be played. He felt that the strict harmonic progressions of the bebop era only served to block the path by which musicians can express themselves. He also recognized that ``you could play sharp or flat in tune'', and would bend notes towards slightly sharper or flatter pitch placements. Because of these beliefs, he tended to ignore the harmonic basis even when it was present, and play things that sounded `out of tune'; this behavior got him kicked off of many a bandstand, most notably Dexter Gordon's, who refused to tolerate such `outside' playing.
Given very few opportunities to play his music in public settings, he often rehearsed in his home. It was during this period that he fostered kinships with a number of musicians in the Los Angeles area. Drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins and trumpeter Don Cherry all became enthralled with Coleman's music.
``I play Ornette's music because it's the only living music.'' - Don Cherry, [23, p.70,]
For a man that seemed to have so much bad luck in getting kicked off of bandstands, his luck took until 1958, when he struck a recording deal with Contemporary. Two albums would be recorded under that label, Something Else! The Music of Ornette Coleman and Tomorrow is the Question. Ekkehard Jost writes in Free Jazz:
As early as the 1958/59 recordings for Contemporary, the most pronounced features of Coleman's saxophone playing were set. His bent for improvisations that were largely unrestrained harmonically is evident, even in pieces whose outward make-up is anything but revolutionary. [13, p.46,]
The Something Else! album was at best a confused attempt at conveying his musical identity. For one, contractual agreements required the use of a piano player, who, although competent, had no idea what Coleman was trying to accomplish, and treated the session like a bebop gig. Secondly, only Coleman and Cherry were present, and the drummer and bassists were drawn from a pool of cool style and bebop musicians, including Percy Heath of MJQ fame. The combination of a harmonic instrument with an unfamiliar group of musicians spawned a less than desirable creative atmosphere. Coleman's melodic lines consisted of bebop-like phrases brought on by the presence of a harmonic instrument, followed by out of context `notey' outbursts.
On Tomorrow is the Question, the pianist is removed, and a marked conceptual improvement can be immediately recognized. Although the drums and bass were still not used to interacting freely with the soloists as Coleman wished, there was no harmonic instrument and the lower register of the bass ``freed up'' the constraints placed on the soloists.
In 1959, Ornette Coleman began recording a series of albums on Atlantic with a new group that was finally what he needed to express his notions about a new direction in jazz; it consisted of drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Charlie Haden and Don Cherry on cornet. The first album, Shape of Jazz to Come, named by an over eager company executive, was masterful in expressing Coleman's concept.
What Ornette Coleman ultimately wanted was freedom from the music. By encouraging heavy band interplay, having little harmonic framework to speak of and playing in a high enough register so as to be `out of the way' of the bass, he liberated the musicians from any sense of what was written on the page in front of them - they were free to play what they wished.