Jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman dies at 85

Thu Jun 11, 2015 2:26pm EDT
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By Bill Trott

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Ornette Coleman, a self-taught alto saxophone player who polarized the jazz world with his unconventional "free jazz" before coming to be regarded as an avant garde genius, died on Thursday morning in New York at the age of 85, according to his publicist.

Ken Weinstein confirmed the death but said he would not be issuing any further information. Media reports said the cause of death was cardiac arrest.

Coleman's motto for his music, often uttered before starting his performances, was "I'd like to go out in space tonight." He would then launch into music that broke the limits of conventional bars, keys, chord changes and harmony.

Coleman so divided jazz musicians, critics and fans that in his early years some musicians at jam sessions would leave the stage during his solos.

His fans labeled him the greatest jazz innovator since Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker but he also was called crude and self-indulgent by skeptics - although many of them reversed their opinions over the years.

"I listened to Coleman high and I listened to him cold sober," trumpet player Roy Eldridge once told a jazz writer. "I even played with him. I think he's jiving, baby."

Coleman's outlaw approach involved what he called "harmolodics" - breaking away from traditional harmonic structure and "removing the caste system from music."

He found approval through the years and in 2007 was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and was an award presenter at the ceremony. He also won a Pulitzer Prize for Music, as well as a Grammy nomination, for the 2007 album "Sound Grammar" and in 2014 released "New Vocabulary."   Continued...

Saxophonist Ornette Coleman performs during the 40th Montreux Jazz festival in Montreux, in this file photo taken July 2, 2006.  REUTERS/Dominic Favre/Files