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Ornette Coleman Dies at 85

Alto saxophonist and composer among jazz's most influential figures

Ornette Coleman
(L-R) Denardo Coleman, Tony Falanga, Ornette Coleman & Al MacDowell at JALC (Photo by Nick Himmel)
Ornette Coleman helps Sonny Rollins celebrate his 80th at NYC's Beacon Theatre; Sept. 10, 2010

Ornette Coleman, the alto saxophonist and composer who led the jazz avant-garde while also revolutionizing the music’s mainstream, died June 11 in Manhattan at age 85. The cause of death was cardiac arrest.

From his arrival on the jazz scene, Coleman simultaneously attracted controversy and exerted an incalculable influence. His debut album, 1958’s Something Else!!!! (Contemporary), while still attached to the tenets of the era’s bop-rooted jazz in its instrumentation, blues spirit and reined-in improvisations, suggested an outsider approach brewing. Over the next couple of years, with one more release for Contemporary, Tomorrow Is the Question!, and a groundbreaking run of albums for Atlantic-The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, This Is Our Music and Free Jazz-Coleman increasingly changed and expanded the accepted notions of harmony, rhythm, structure and group interplay in jazz. Still, for all his innovation, his compositions, some of which became standards, and improvisations, voice-like and descended from the blues and R&B, worked like great American folk art: They were profound and mysterious but also human and visceral.

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