The Slatest

Legendary Jazz Saxophonist, Composer Ornette Coleman Dies at Age 85

Ornette Coleman in 2007.

Andrea Comas/Reuters

Ornette Coleman, an alto saxophonist and composer whose late-1950s–era performances and albums had a revolutionary impact on American music—and who continued to play and record well-received new material well into his old age—has died at age 85, the New York Times reports. The cause of death was cardiac arrest.

The phrase most commonly associated with Coleman’s seminal oeuvre is “free jazz,” and even if you don’t specifically know his work, his approach is likely recognizable to you as a heavy influence on artists such as Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, and the Grateful Dead. Here’s what Slate’s Fred Kaplan wrote about free jazz in 2006:

Ornette’s style of “freedom” lies not so much in what the musicians play as in their relationship to one another. Coleman made up his own odd word for his music: “harmolodic,” roughly defined as music where harmony, motion (or rhythm), and melody play equal roles. No part is subordinate to the others. All the players feel free to improvise whenever they want. Listening to an Ornette song, you might not notice the melody at first hearing because it doesn’t follow conventional chord changes or, sometimes, any set structure at all.

Coleman’s most legendary album is probably 1959’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, released around the time that he played a famous (and divisive) series of shows at the Five Spot Cafe on the Bowery in New York. Here’s the first track off that album, “Lonely Woman.” Fifty-six years later its sound is both familiar (given its aforementioned influence) and still a little unnerving—in the right kind of way.

Coleman, whose full name was Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman, was born in Fort Worth, Texas, spent a number of his musically formative years in Los Angeles, and died in Manhattan.