@ the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre
20 November 2011
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Rarely does one person change the way we listen to music, but such
a man is Ornette Coleman. Since the late 1950s, when he burst on
the New York jazz scene with his legendary engagement at the Five
Spot, Coleman has been teaching the world new ways of listening
to music. His revolutionary musical ideas have been controversial,
but today his enormous contribution to modern music is recognised
throughout the world.
Coleman was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1930 and taught himself
to play the saxophone and read music by the age of 14. One year
later he formed his own band. Finding a troublesome existence in
Fort Worth surrounded by racial segregation and poverty, he took
to the road at age 19. During the 1950s while in Los Angeles, Coleman’s
musical ideas were too controversial to find frequent public performance
possibilities. He did, however, find a core of musicians who took
to his musical concepts: trumpeters Don Cherry and Bobby Bradford,
drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, and bassist Charlie Haden.
In 1958, with the release of his debut album Something Else, it
was immediately clear that Coleman had ushered in a new era in jazz
history. This music, freed from the prevailing conventions of harmony,
rhythm, and melody, often called ‘free jazz’ transformed
the art form. Coleman called this concept Harmolodics. From 1959
through the rest of the 60s, Coleman released more than fifteen
critically acclaimed albums on the Atlantic and Blue Note labels,
most of which are now recognised as jazz classics. He also began
writing string quartets, woodwind quintets, and symphonies based
on Harmolodic theory.
In the early 1970s, Coleman travelled throughout Morocco and Nigeria
playing with local musicians and interpreting the melodic and rhythmic
complexities of their music into this Harmolodic approach. In 1975,
seeking the fuller sound of an orchestra for his writing, Coleman
constructed a new ensemble entitled Prime Time, which included the
doubling of guitars, drums, and bass. Combining elements of ethnic
and danceable sounds, this approach is now identified with a full
genre of music and musicians. In the next decade, more surprises
included trend-setting albums such as “Song X” with
guitarist Pat Methany, and “Virgin Beauty” featuring
Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia.
The 1990s included other large works such as the premier of “Architecture
in Motion,” Coleman’s first Harmolodic ballet, as well
as work on the soundtracks for the films Naked Lunch and Philadelphia.
With the dawning of the Harmolodic record label under Polygram,
Coleman became heavily involved in new recordings including “Tone
Dialing,” “Sound Museum,” and “Colors”.
In 1997, New York City’s Lincoln Center Festival featured
the music and the various guises of Coleman over four days, including
performances with the New York Philharmonic and Kurt Masur of his
symphonic work, “Skies of America.”
There has been a tremendous outpouring of recognition bestowed
upon Coleman for his work, including honorary degrees from the University
of Pennsylvania, California Institute of the Arts, and Boston Conservatory,
and an honorary doctorate from the New School for Social Research.
In 1994, he was a recipient of the distinguished MacArthur Fellowship
award, and in 1997, was inducted into the American Academy of Arts
and Letters. In 2001, Ornette Coleman received the prestigious Praemium
Imperiale award from the Japanese government. Coleman won the Pulitzer
Prize for Music for his 2006 album, “Sound Grammar,”
the first jazz work to be bestowed with the honour. In 2008, he
was inducted into the Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame. The NEJHF
honours legendary musicians whose singular dedication and outstanding
contribution to this art shaped the landscape of jazz.