Daily Visual 11.06.15: The Death of Ornette Coleman

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Ornette Coleman died today, at the age of 85. The cause of his death was reportedly cardiac arrest. Coleman was born on 9 March 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas. His formative years were spent playing the alto and tenor saxophone touring across his home state with a series of rhythm and blues groups. His breakthrough came in 1958, when he recorded the first of two albums for Contemporary: Something Else!!!!, followed early the next year by Tomorrow is the Question!, which was notable for its absence of piano.

The lack of piano and his use of a white plastic Grafton alto saxophone, which he had bought in 1954, characterised Coleman’s early career. In 1959 he signed a multi-album deal with Atlantic Records. Towards the end of May he recorded The Shape of Jazz to Come; the album would be released in October. In the meantime Coleman and his bandmate Don Cherry attended the Lenox School of Jazz, and soon after The Shape of Jazz to Come appeared, they won a residency at the Five Spot Café in Manhattan which was extended to last two and a half months. This engagement, more than the release of his album, brought Coleman to the attention of his peers and the jazz critics, who equally lauded and condemned his radical sound.

But The Shape of Jazz to Come was Coleman’s first great record, and a watershed in the history of jazz. In a decisive break from bebop, which had flourished since the middle of the 1940s in the hands of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, Coleman – along with his contemporaries Charles Mingus and John Coltrane – eschewed standard chord progressions, chorus structures, and virtuosity in favour of tonality, dissonance, and an emphasis upon mood. There was a folk song quality to Coleman’s music, with his saxophone often drawing comparison to the wailing of the human voice. Built upon the interplay between he and Cherry, between 1959 and 1961 Coleman would record nine albums for Atlantic – although several of these were not released until the early 1970s. Coleman defined his technique using the phrase ‘harmolodics’: a contraction of harmony, movement, and melody.

Change of the Century came in June 1960; then This Is Our Music in February 1961; then in September Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, featuring a double quartet which incorporated Eric Dolphy, and comprising almost forty minutes of uninterrupted playing. Free jazz soon became the name for a new genre, although Coleman, who composed his pieces rather than relying solely on improvisation, disliked the term.

By 1962 Coleman’s quartet was coming apart, and he began demanding more money from clubs and his record label. After recording Town Hall, 1962, which was later released by ESP-Disk, he retired from the jazz scene for the best part of three years. When he reappeared, he had taken up the trumpet and violin; and began focusing on the composition of avant-garde and classical pieces. At the same time he sporadically recorded jazz for Blue Note and Columbia, with 1971’s Science Fiction earning particular acclaim.

From the 1977 album Dancing in Your Head, Coleman started utilising electric instruments with his Prime Time band, in an influential fusion of aspects of rock and funk. In 1985 he worked with the guitarist Pat Metheny on Song X. Across the decade, Coleman briefly reunited with the members of his original quartet. The mid-1990s saw a flurry of new work put out via his Harmolodic record label, distributed through Verve. Sound Grammar, released in September 2006 with an all-new quartet, earned Coleman the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Music Composition; and that same year, he received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.

Throughout Coleman’s career, he regularly moved beyond the world of jazz to collaborate with artists in other fields. In the early 1960s, around the time of Free Jazz, he worked with the American composer Gunther Schuller. In 1970 he contributed trumpet on Yoko Ono’s debut album, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. In 1972 he released Skies of America, conceived as a concerto grosso, and played by the London Symphony Orchestra. The next year he travelled to the mountains of Rif, Morocco, to collaborate with the musicians of Jajouka. In 1991 he featured prominently on the score of David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. And in 2003 his alto saxophone added to Lou Reed’s The Raven.

Ornette Coleman will be remembered for the vivid emotional power of his music, and as one of jazz’s signal innovators. His final public performance was at Prospect Park in Brooklyn last June, where he performed a tribute concert arranged by his son.

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Also today, Dusty Rhodes, ‘The American Dream’, died at the age of 69 after falling at his home in Orlando, Florida. Born Virgil Riley Runnels Jr. on 12 October 1945, Dusty began his career in the wrestling business tagging with Dick Murdoch. He won the NWA Florida Heavyweight Championship ten times in Florida Championship Wrestling; before moving on to Mid-Atlantic, the precursor to Jim Crockett Promotions, where he won the NWA World Heavyweight Championship on three occasions. His last title triumph came over Ric Flair during the Great American Bash tour of 1986.

From the late 1970s through to the mid-1980s, Dusty routinely fought against the wrestling industry’s most dangerous villains: especially Ric Flair and, later, The Four Horsemen. His persona as a blue-collar everyman, overweight, but ferociously tough in the ring and intensely gifted on the microphone, made him one of the most popular wrestlers in the history of the sport. His 1985 promo on ‘Hard Times’ is often considered the pinnacle of the form.

In Jim Crockett Promotions, Dusty won the United States, Television, World Tag Team, and Six-Man Tag Team championships. He joined what was then the World Wrestling Federation – today’s WWE – in 1989, before returning to World Championship Wrestling and later spending time in Total Nonstop Action. From 2005, Dusty served as a creative consultant for WWE. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2007; and continued working as booker and coach at NXT until his death. His sons Dustin Rhodes and Cody Rhodes wrestle in WWE as Goldust and Stardust.