For both his musical virtuosity on alto saxophone and his compositions, Ornette Coleman is one of the major forces in American music in the late twentieth century. Like painter Jackson Pollock and writer Walt Whitman, who rejected traditional forms as too constrictive for human expression, Coleman broke with existing jazz diction, creating a raw sound that seemed to deliberately avoid the musical scale in favor of "playing in the cracks."
In 1959, Coleman's quartet produced The Shape of Jazz to Come, a musical manifesto that was the aural equivalent of Pollock's abstract expressionism. Coleman disavowed the idea that "free jazz," as his music was called, was pure improvisation, maintaining that careful planning went into each composition. In the 1970s Coleman moved into jazz funk, using electrified instruments. He is still a prolific musician, and his album Sound Grammar won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2007.
Reuben Jackson, archivist at the National Museum of American History, recently discussed this portrait of Ornette Coleman by Frederick J. Brown at a Face-to-Face portrait talk. The work is displayed on the museum’s third floor, in the exhibition “20th Century Americans.”
Listen to Reuben Jackson's Face-to-Face talk on Ornette Coleman (27:26)
Face-to-Face occurs every Thursday evening at the National Portrait Gallery. The next Face-to-Face talk is this Thursday, March 5, when curator of painting and sculpture Ellen Miles speaks about Dolley Madison. The talk runs from 6:00 to 6:30 p.m. Visitors meet the presenter in the museum’s F Street lobby and then walk to the appropriate gallery.
Ornette Coleman / Frederick J. Brown, 1992 / Oil and charcoal on linen / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Joel and Sherry Mallin and Sebastienne and Bentley Brown / © 1992, Frederick J. Brown