Happy Birthday, Ornette Coleman!

At 80, the very active jazz legend is still breaking ground.


When Ornette Coleman was 29, he turned the jazz world on its head. Now that he’s turned 80 this week, the legendary jazz man has an opportunity to make another important and lasting impact on jazz.

Coleman’s life and career are worthy of a biopic, except for one simple thing—he’s clearly not finished. By the time they reach 80, most great musicians are resting on their laurels, but Ornette is still making challenging music and defying convention. He’s changed the structure of jazz improvisation with his landmark works of the late-‘50s and early-‘60s. He showed how multidimensional funk could be with his electric band, Prime Time, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and now with his current ensemble, he is deftly integrating aspects of electronic and acoustic instruments into a seamless meld.

For his ninth decade, Ornette should lead jazz further into the 21st century by taking control of his recorded catalogue and republishing it. Coleman’s discography is in dire need of revival because the labels that control his output—Sony/BMG, Atlantic, Blue Note and Verve—have either left the jazz party or have one foot out the door.

In the absence of major-label support, artists like saxophonist Greg Osby, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Kendrick Scott, and trio Medeski, Martin and Wood have all launched their own imprints in recent years. Ornette anticipated this development almost 20 years ago when he unveiled his own label, Harmolodic. Now he needs to take this a step further by licensing his older work and giving it a 21st-century presentation.

Coleman’s first history-making recordings, his Atlantic Records work from 1959-1961 were lovingly gathered into a boxed set called Beauty is a Rare Thing, issued in 1993. The work is a treasure trove of new ideas about jazz and the blues, but if people aren’t paying $15 for a CD anymore, by what logic can marketers assume that they will drop $80 for a boxed set? These recordings are vital for any jazz collection and should be given the treatment they deserve. They should be digitized for downloads with packages that sell just the music or with extras such as video commentary by Coleman.