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Coleman, Omette (Randolph Denard)

jazz music band played

Coleman, Omette (Randolph Denard), avant-garde jazz saxophonist, composer, trumpeter, violinist, and one of the major forces in the history of jazz; b. Fort Worth, Tex., March 9, 1930. His parents were Randolph and Rosa Coleman, both probably from Cal-vert, Tex. There was a piano in the house and his father loved to sing. His older sister, Truvenza ‘Trudy” (b. c. 1929), was a professional singer but has been retired since the late 1970s. Omette was largely self-taught; he served his apprenticeship playing in carnival and R&B bands. He taught himself to play the alto saxophone and to read music in 1944, performing in school marching band. One year later, he formed his first band; a year after that, he switched to tenor, and played in numerous local R&B groups, including one led by Thomas “Red” Connors. Surrounded by racial segregation and poverty in Fort Worth, he took to the road by the age of 19 with a carnival band. He was dismissed from the tent show for playing bebop; he was stranded in New Orleans, then threatened by racist sheriffs in Miss. In Baton Rouge, a gang of roughnecks beat him up and threw his tenor off a hill, so he went back to the alto, which is still his principal horn. Coleman moved to Los Angeles with Pee Wee Cray ton’s blues band in 1950, and spent the better part of the 1950s there, working at various odd jobs, studying music theory, practicing and composing whenever he could. His approach to harmony was already unorthodox and led to his rejection by established musicians in Los Angeles. While working as an elevator operator, he studied harmony and played a Graf ton plastic alto saxophone at obscure nightclubs. Until then, all jazz improvisation had been based on fixed harmonic patterns. In the “harmolodic theory” that Coleman developed in the 1950s, improvisers abandoned harmonic patterns (”chord changes”) in order to improvise more extensively and directly upon melodic and expressive elements. Because the tonal centers of such music changed at the improviséis will, it became known as “free jazz.”

Coleman continued to develop his own expression, and gradually a few musicians began to understand. He started playing with Ed Blackwell, Bobby Bradford, and later George Newman, Billy Higgins, Don Cherry, James Clay, and Charlie Haden. He worked his first gig as a leader with Cherry, Don Friedman, and Higgins at the Jazz Cellar in Vancouver for a week in 1957. Red Mitchell was instrumental in securing him his first recording date, Something Else (1958; rei. 1959). He played with Paul Bley at Los Angeles’ Hillcrest Club later in 1958, and formed the nucleus of quartet with the other band members, Cherry, Higgins, and Charlie Haden. With the help of admirer John Lewis, he soon found himself recording for Atlantic and spending the summer of 1959 at the Lenox (Mass.) School of Jazz. The albums The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century shook the jazz world; his radical conception of structure and the urgent emotionality of his improvisations aroused widespread controversy. He made his first performance at N.Y.’s Five Spot on Nov. 17, 1959; the distinguished crowd included Leonard Bernstein, Gunther Schuller, Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun, John Hammond, and others. His recordings Free Jazz (1960), which used two simultaneously improvising jazz quartets, and Beauty Is a Rare Thing, in which he experimented with free meters and tempos, also proved influential.

There were periods of inactivity in the early 1960s as he decided to fight the establishment by charging more for his performances; he formed a trio in 1964 with David Izenzon and Charlie Moffett and toured Europe the next year. By then, he had switched to a Selmer metal saxophone. Coleman later traded his Grafton for a bassoon, which he only played once in concert. There were more accomplishments in the mid 1960s: new ensembles, pieces for classical chamber groups such as Forms and Sounds for Woodwind Quintet (1967), challenging film soundtracks, recordings with his son De-nardo (from his marriage to poet Jayne Cortez; b. Los Angeles, Calif., April 19, 1956) from when he was 11 on, and solos on trumpet and violin, which he taught himself. In 1968 he added Dewey Redman, who joined him on two recordings with Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison and became a regular member of Coleman’s group through 1972. He opened a loft, Artist House, in Manhattan’s Soho area as center for exhibitions and concerts (1971). His classical ensemble writing continued to thrive into the 1970s; his orchestral masterpiece Skies of America was premiered at the Newport Jazz Festival (July 4, 1972) and he recorded it that year with the London Symphony Orch.

For much of the 1970s, Coleman performed irregularly, fed up with the music business, preferring instead to compose. Influenced by his experience of improvising with native musicians in the Rif Mountains of Morocco [The Master Musicians of Jajouka] in 1973, Coleman formed an electric band called Prime Time, whose music was a fusion of rock rhythms with harmonically free collective improvisations; this band remains his primary performance vehicle to this day. He added electric guitar, bass, and congas in 1975. Denardo is a member and also helps to manage his father’s career. Omette continued to write chamber music, such as Sex Spy (1977). In 1985 he recorded “Song X” and toured with Pat Metheny. In 1988 Virgin Beauty featured Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, and Coleman also performed with the Dead that year. Younger converts to his method have included Ronald Shannon Jackson, James Blood Ulmer, and Jamaaldeen Tacuma.

Coleman’s activities in the 1990s have included “Architecture in Motion’’ (1995), his first Harmolodic ballet, as well as work on the soundtracks for the films Naked Lunch (1991) and Philadelphia . He has won numerous honors and celebrations, including the Guggenheim (c. 1970), honorary degrees from the Univ. of Pa. (1989), Calif. Inst. of the Arts (1990), Boston Cons, of Music (1993), and the New School for Social Research; he also won the 1994 Mac Arthur Fellowship award and was elected to Amer. Acad. of Arts and Letters (1997). Omette Coleman’s multimedia show “Civilization” project, which completed its first leg on July 4, 1998 at the La Villette Jazz Festival in Paris, held its second half at the Lincoln Center Festival July 8–11, featuring performances of “Skies of America/’ “In All Languages/’ and the multimedia show, “Tone Dialing” with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. His goal is to complete a symphony, The Oldest Language, ”conceived as a performance piece for ethnic players from around the world.

Coleman’s playing and writing have inspired two generations of “avant-garde” players, and like John Cage, his ideas have had an even broader impact than his music. His writing, which has been derided as incoherent, is better perceived as poetry. For example, he wrote on the back of This Is Our Music that his life was pretty much the same as anybody’s—”Born, work, sad and happy and etc.” His personal speech is equally poetic, and all his acquaintances have their stories—for example, when he met the wife of his guitarist, Kenny Wessel, and she told him she didn’t play an instrument but was an anthropologist, he said, “Well, then you play the world!” He told Juilliard students at a rehearsal with Joel Sachs in the late 1990s, “It’s not an idea yet, so it doesn’t have a tempo. If you hear a different note from the one that’s written, play the one you hear and it will sound like it was written. You played that half step like a whole step. (Sachs says this means it lacked the tension of a half step.)” He told Henry Martin: “If you go up from C to D it’s a whole step, but down again from D to C is not really a whole step.” His ideas about musical relationships developed into what he calls Harmolodics: relationships between harmony and melodic ideas.

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