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Free for All: Reflections on Ornette Coleman

The empathetic genius of the jazz avant-garde

Ornette Coleman in 1966 (Francis Wolff/Courtesy of Mosaic Images)

Ornette Coleman, who died on June 11 at 85, received due credit in his time: as an alto saxophonist of singular impact, a composer-bandleader of restless purpose and an all-around trailblazer, the man who did more than anyone to blow open modern jazz’s orthodoxies of style. A recipient of the first Guggenheim Fellowship for jazz composition in 1967, he later became a MacArthur Fellow, an NEA Jazz Master and the winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Still, there remained to the end an air of the maverick about Coleman. “He was seen as a native avant-gardist,” wrote Ben Ratliff in a front-page obituary for the New York Times, “personifying the American independent will as much as any artist of the last century.”

To my mind, Coleman was quite possibly jazz’s greatest humanist. In his music as in even the most casual conversation, he was always drawing parallels between sonic principles and the human condition. And unlike some other important exponents of free jazz, he wasn’t inexorably drawn to mysticism or religion, choosing to frame his innovations as the product of personal inquisition. However slippery and circuitous his logic-as an improviser and certainly as the auteur of harmolodics, his idiosyncratic music theory-it nevertheless was some kind of logic, striving toward a rational ideal.

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