Early on in his career, alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, recorded an album entitled, The Shape of Jazz To Come. It might have seemed like an expression of youthful arrogance - Coleman was 29 at the time - but actually, the title was prophetic. Coleman is the creator of a concept of music called "harmolodic," a musical form which is equally applicable as a life philosophy. The richness of harmolodics derives from the unique interaction between the players. Breaking out of the prison bars of rigid meters and conventional harmonic or structural expectations, harmolodic musicians improvise equally together in what Coleman calls compositional improvisation, while always keeping deeply in tune with the flow, direction and needs of their fellow players. In this process, harmony becomes melody becomes harmony. Ornette describes it as "Removing the caste system from sound." On a broader level, harmolodics equates with the freedom to be as you please, as long as you listen to others and work with them to develop your own individual harmony.
For his essential vision and innovation, Coleman has been rewarded by many accolades, including the MacArthur "Genius" Award, and an induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letter. an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Pennsylvania, the American Music Center Letter of Distinction, and the New York State Governor Arts Award.
But the path to his present universal acclaim has not always been smooth.
Born in a largely segregated Fort Worth, Texas on March 9, 1930, Coleman's father died when he was seven. His seamstress mother worked hard to buy Coleman his first saxophone when he was 14 years old. Teaching himself sight-reading from a how-to piano book, Coleman absorbed the instrument and began playing with local rhythm and blues bands.
In his search for a sound that expressed reality as he perceived it, Coleman knew he was not alone. The competitive cutting sessions that denoted 'bebop' were all about self-expression in the highest form. "I could play and sound like Charlie Parker note-for-note, but I was only playing it from method. So I tried to figure out where to go from there," Coleman said.
Los Angeles proved to be the laboratory for what came to be called free jazz. There began to gather around Ornette a core of players who would figure largely in his life: a lanky teenage trumpeter, Don Cherry and a cherubic double bass player with a pensive, muscular style named Charlie Haden, drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins also joined the intense exploratory rehearsals in which Coleman was honing his vocabulary on a plastic sax, despite the lack of live gigs.