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 Friday, 27 November 2015
Ornette Coleman Awarded Pulitzer Prize for Sound Grammar PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Friday, 20 April 2007
Coleman was dancing in our heads—harsh yet jubilant, alienated yet benevolent…True, he challenged every pre-conception of Western music…but that was secondary to his magnanimous spirit, his blinding unison of purpose.” –Gary Giddens, Visions of Jazz

Ornette Colman Jimmy Katz
On April 16, saxophone legend and father of “free jazz” Ornette Coleman became only the second jazz artist to be awarded a competitive Pulitzer Prize, granted for his 2006 release, Sound Grammar. Wynton Marsalis earned the honor in 1997 for his oratorio, Blood on the Fields. A posthumous Special Citation was also awarded to John Coltrane.

Born into the blues tradition of his native Texas, Ornette Coleman is most known as a saxophonist but taught himself other instruments, including trumpet and violin. He took up the alto saxophone in high school, switching to tenor to play R&B before discovering bop and developing a unique style that would influence the next four generations of jazz artists. But during his early career, Coleman’s experimental sounds were greeted with anything but acclaim and respect. Sometimes paid to not play, this off-beat innovator struggled to find an audience and compatible collaborators, finally meeting some kindred spirits (Don Cherry and Billy Higgins, later Ed Blackwell, Paul Bley, and Charlie Haden) while living in LA. In the late 50s and early 60s, he found artistic if not commercial success, notably through a legendary gig at New York’s Five Spot in 1959, the famed Golden Circle recordings in the mid 60s, and his Guggenheim Fellowship in 1967—the first ever awarded specifically for jazz composition.

As the 70s began, Coleman experienced more commercial success, appearing at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1971 and on tour with the Newport musicians in Europe. Always experimenting, Coleman electrified his band in the mid 70s, initially a septet but later evolving into a smaller ensemble, Prime Time. Most significant collaborations during the 1980s included Pat Metheny (Song X) and the Grateful Dead, both of which extended his audience and led to his formation of the Harmolodic label and affiliation with Polygram France.

Over his forty-year career, Coleman has worked in diverse configuration, from duet to symphony orchestra. Recognition came late but significantly—a 1994 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award, induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an honorary doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, the American Music Center Letter of Distinction, and the New York State Governor Arts Award. In 1997, Coleman was recognized through Lincoln Center’s four-night Civilization series at Avery Fisher Hall, with Coleman and Prime Time sharing the stage with the New York Philharmonic and the first performance of the original quartet in twenty years.

Noted Gary Giddens (Visions of Jazz), Coleman “resisted the laws of harmony, melody, rhythm, and pitch, all of which he ultimately revised in the abracadabra of harmolodic”—a concept that he first presented in his “Skies of America” symphony, premiered in New York and performed in Paris in 1972. He abandoned chord changes and the conventional 32-bar AABA song form, and promoted interactive improvisation among the members of his quartet and trio, generating reactions ranging from highest praise to dismay to shock from musicians, critics, and listeners. Further, Coleman developed a “human” sound, described by Howard Mandel as “more than imitative vocalization, but rather an audible equivalent to the hum of one's internal monologue, whether it's a roar of pleasure, a cry of pain, a whisper of tenderness or a question to the cosmos.”

Sound Grammar, recorded live in Germany in 2005, was Coleman’s first release of all-new material in nearly a decade, with six new compositions and new interpretations of his classics “Song X” and “Turnaround.” His new quartet features two bassists (Greg Cohen’s plucking and Tony Falanga’s bowing) along with Ornette’s son Denardo Coleman on drums. Denardo has kept time for his father since age ten, and was part of Prime Time. Since the 1980s, he has also served Dad as producer and manager, helping him establish Harmolodic, Inc. Bassist, arranger, composer (and multi-instrumentalist) Greg Cohen is a veteran of John Zorn’s Masada, a frequent collaborator of Tom Waits and Dave Douglas, and has performed with the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed, among others. No second fiddle, Tony Falanga trained at the Manhattan School of Music, Juilliard and Berklee, and has an extensive resume as a solo, chamber, and jazz bassist. With the leader alternating on violin, trumpet and alto sax, the ensemble engages in free improvisation, which in the words of Entertainment Weekly, displays “upward-pointed cries, downward-bent moans, and playful squiggly figures....a fountain of sublime ideas."

Special Citation for John ColtraneImage

In 2004, the Pulitzer Prize Board voted to expand its definition of the Music Prize. The following year, Thelonious Monk was honored with a posthumous, Special Citation. Now, for 2007, the Pulitzer Prize Board has awarded a Special Citation to John Coltrane in recognition of his life work and “his masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship and iconic centrality to the history of jazz.” The citation further notes, “His exalted stature arises from his composition and recordings. In ‘A Love Supreme,’ he produced an imposing composition expressing faith. In ‘Africa/Brass Selections,’ he achieved astonishing orchestral feats. His work has weight, an artistic quest and searching nature. Coltrane infused the existing tradition with innovation and radical approaches. The surface of his music is dynamic and palpable, the underlying structure is suffused with spirituality and provocative political content.”

The Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prizes were established through the will of famed journalist Joseph Pulitzer in 1917, initially in journalism, drama and education, and have expanded over the years to include poetry, music and photography—a total of 21 prizes each year. When the music category was added in 1943, it was limited to composers of classical music. Following the 1997 award to Wynton Marsalis, the music category expanded its definition to encompass a broader range of American music. Special Citations were awarded to George Gershwin and Duke Ellington, then Monk in 2006 and now Coltrane in 2007. Only Marsalis and now Ornette Coleman have received the Pulitzer Prize as jazz artists. Winners of the Pulitzer receive a $10,000 cash award.

Most people think of me only as a saxophonist and as a jazz artist, but I want to be considered as a composer who could cross over all the borders.” –Ornette Coleman

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