Ornette Coleman 2004 Recipient

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Innovative jazz composer and saxophonist Ornette Coleman taught the world new ways of listening to music for over five decades. His revolutionary ideas were controversial, but today his enormous contribution to modern music is recognized throughout the world.

Born in 1930 in Texas, Ornette Coleman burst onto the New York jazz scene in the 1950s with his now legendary engagement at the Five Spot club, ushering in a new era with his “harmolodic” concept, which broke music away from prevailing conventions of harmony, rhythm, and melody. He described it as “removing the caste system from sound.” Grounded in the freedom of expression, Coleman’s approach encouraged individual improvisation, leading to a unique interaction between musicians playing together. Over the years, his collaborators have included trumpeters Don Cherry and Bobby Bradford, drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, bassist Charlie Haden, saxophonist Dewey Redman, and drummer and son Denardo Coleman.

Coleman’s free form style was at first rejected by many audiences and musicians who did not understand the unstructured patterns, but with the release of his debut album Something Else in 1958, and the aptly titled The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959, it became clear that Coleman had broken ground. More than 15 critically acclaimed albums followed throughout the 1960s, establishing Coleman as a visionary jazz pioneer. His 1960 recording “Free Jazz”, a 37-minute sustained collective improvisation, is perhaps the single most important influence on avant-garde jazz of the period.

In the early 1970s, Coleman traveled throughout Morocco and Nigeria playing with local musicians. He began writing string quartets, woodwind quintets, and symphonies, including his ambitious 1972 work “Skies of America”, a 21-movement suite for symphony orchestra. In 1975, seeking a fuller sound, Coleman assembled Prime Time, an electric band capable of producing a forceful amped-up sound with a doubling of guitars, drums, and bass. The band combined elements of ethnic and danceable sounds now identified with a full genre of music and musicians. Trend-setting albums such as Song X with guitarist Pat Metheny, and Virgin Beauty featuring Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia followed. Coleman befriended and worked with a range of artists, including painters Bob Thompson and Robert Rauschenberg, Japanese conceptual artist Yoko Ono, Indian singer Asha Puthli, astrophysicist Dr. Fiorella Tirenzi, and poet David Henderson.

The 1990s included the premiere 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 creation 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 featured a four-day celebration of Coleman’s music, including performances with the New York Philharmonic. That same year, Coleman was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Among his other honors are a 1994 MacArthur Fellowship award, a 2007 Grammy for Lifetime achievement, and a 2007 Miles Davis Award.

Coleman continued to perform until his death in 2015. He released his final album, Sound Grammer in 2006. The album, his first album of new material in ten years, received the Pulitzer Prize in music and was the second jazz album to receive this prestigious award.

Selection Committee

Bill Ivey, Chairman – Bill Ivey is a consultant to Vanderbilt University’s initiatives in Canada and Southeast China. He was the Harvey Branscomb Distinguished Visiting Scholar and the Director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University from 2002 to 2012. He was also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Arts and Culture, a Washington D.C. think tank and chairs the board of the National Recording Preservation Foundation.

Ivey has served as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and is credited with restoring Congressional confidence in the work of the NEA. His Challenge America Initiative has to date garnered more than $25 million in additional Congressional appropriation for the Endowment.

In addition, Ivey has been director of the Country Music Foundation in Nashville, twice-elected chairman of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and a four-time Grammy Award nominee in the Best Album Notes category.

Anne d’Harnoncourt – Anne d’Harnoncourt was the George D. Widener Director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Prior to her directorship, d’Harnoncourt served as curator of 20th century art, helping the museum build a substantial contemporary collection, acquiring works by Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Claes Oldenberg, Frank Stella, among others.

She served on numerous boards including the Smithsonian Institution, the Henry Luce Foundation and the Japan Society, and was recognized with awards including the Philadelphia Award.

David Henry Hwang – David Henry Hwang’s work includes the plays M. Butterfly, Golden Child, Yellow Face and FOB, and the Broadway musicals Aida (co-author), Flower Drum Song (2002 revival) and Disney’s Tarzan. He is also a screenwriter, and America’s most-produced living opera librettist. David is a Tony Award winner and three-time nominee, a three-time OBIE Award winner and a two-time Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. His recent play, Chinglish, recently seen on Broadway, won the 2011 Jeff Award for Best New Work, and was named Best American Play of 2011 by TIME Magazine. In 2012 he was the Residency One Playwright at NYC’s Signature Theatre, which produced a season of his plays, including the world premiere of his work, Kung Fu. He is the director of Columbia University’s School of the Arts’ M.F.A. program in playwriting.