Jazz saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman died Thursday morning in New York City of cardiac arrest, The Guardian, Variety, The New York Times and other news outlets have reported. He was 85.
A native of Forth Worth Texas, Coleman became one of jazz music’s most renowned and controversial figures. Early in his career, during the late 1940s, he lived in New Orleans. In an interview published in 1995 by Cadence magazine, Coleman recalled staying with trumpeter Melvin Lastie.
“I had a really good time in New Orleans, although I had some very tragic times in Baton Rouge,” Coleman said. “Some guys beat me up and threw my horn away. ’Cause I had a beard, then, and long hair like the Beatles.
“I didn’t want to be bothered with people that were unkind,” he added. “I thought that if I grew a beard they would leave me alone. Instead of leaving me alone, they thought I was gay or a freak or something. I guess, they didn’t like my appearance.”
Coleman and his original quartet, featuring trumpeter Don Cherry, emerged on the scene in a major way in 1959.
A primary innovator in the 1950s and ’60s free jazz movement, Coleman defied the conventional rules of rhythm and harmony. His better known compositions include “Turnaround,” “Lonely Woman,” “The Blessing” and “I’ve Waited All My Life.”
Drummer Ed Blackwell is Coleman’s major New Orleans connection. Blackwell joined Coleman’s band in the early 1960s, an association that established him as one of jazz music's great drummers. Coleman and Blackwell worked together for decades.
“Blackwell plays the drums as if he’s playing a wind instrument,” Coleman told Cadence magazine in the 1987 interview. “Actually, he sounds more like a talking drum.”