Jazz legend Ornette Coleman, 'free jazz' pioneer, dies at 85

In this Feb. 14, 2007, file photo, U.S. jazz legend Ornette Coleman plays the sax during his only concert in Germany. Coleman, the visionary saxophonist who pioneered "free jazz" and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007,  died, on Thursday. He was 85. (Associated Press)
In this Feb. 14, 2007, file photo, U.S. jazz legend Ornette Coleman plays the sax during his only concert in Germany. Coleman, the visionary saxophonist who pioneered "free jazz" and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007, died, on Thursday. He was 85. (Associated Press)
Published June 11 2015

NEW YORK — Jazz legend Ornette Coleman, the visionary saxophonist and composer who pioneered "free jazz" and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007, has died.

Publicist Ken Weinstein says Coleman died on Thursday at 1 a.m. in Manhattan. He was 85.

The Texas-born Coleman was only the second jazz artist to win the Pulitzer in music when he was honored for his 2006 album Sound Grammar.

Coleman is regarded as one of the greatest innovators in jazz history along with Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. In the late 1950s, he originated "free jazz," challenging the bebop establishment by abandoning the conventional song form and liberating musicians to freely improvise off of the melody rather than the underlying chord changes. Coleman broke down the barrier between leader and sidemen, giving his band members freedom to solo, interact and develop their ideas.

Though largely self-taught, Coleman would create his own "harmolodic" concept of music, which also became a life philosophy. The music derived from a uniquely free interaction between the musicians, without being tethered to rigid metric or harmonic structure.

"I want everyone to have an equal relationship to the results," Coleman told the AP in a 2007 interview. "I don't tell them what or how to play. ... Sometimes the drum is leading, sometimes the bass is leading. ... I don't think I'm the leader, I'm just paying the bills."

In his later years, the jazz revolutionary became a respected elder statesman with the accompanying honors, including membership in the elite American Academy of Arts and Letters, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master award, and a Grammy lifetime achievement award, even though none of his recordings ever won a Grammy.

"With his prodigious saxophone skills, improvisational prowess and innovative compositions, Ornette Coleman was a true pioneer of jazz in America," Neil Portnow, president and CEO of the Recording Academy, said in a statement.

Coleman considered himself more than a jazz player. He journeyed to Morocco to play with the Master Musicians of Joujouka, performed with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, and composed a concerto, Skies of America, that he recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Coleman said the title of his Pulitzer-winning album Sound Grammar referred to his life-long search to decode the universal musical language that crosses all borders.

"To me sound is eternal … and there are still some notes that haven't been heard. I don't know where to find them, but I know they are there," Coleman said in the AP interview.

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