Born 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas. He's a 20th Century composer and musician. His most lasting contribution to jazz was his eliminating of a predetermined cycle of chords (the "changes") as a basis for jazz improvisation - this was/is called (among other things) free jazz - also the title of one of his recordings. He influenced the sixties' and subsequent avant-gardes, from John Coltrane to John Zorn. Even Miles Davis' mid-60's to mid-70's groups owe a debt to him (though Miles would never have admitted that). And much modern Western non-rockist improvisation, whether it comes from jazz, rock, or classical music, has, perhaps, the fame of Ornette, Ravi Shankar, and John Cage, or some combination of the three, as a founding father.
Ornette was a self-taught alto saxophonist to a great extent, and became one of thousands of youngsters hypnotized by bebop, and in his case, the music of Charlie Parker. He never became the virtuoso that Parker was, but he was able to become a thinker about music, and able to begin applying those thoughts into making a new music of his own; while Parker had aspirations of extending his music farther, his heroin habit never gave him the chance to do more than record lame ballads with a string orchestra - this wasn't really the change that Bird had in mind.
Ornette's first public experiments probably came after moving to Los Angeles in the 1950s; he lived as sort of a proto-hippie for a while, still studying the music. He would form a group there, with other musical seekers, like Don Cherry and Paul Bley (his then-wife Carla was also there, and this music would eventually serve as an inspiration to her). The group was not a rousing success; Ornette would go to Lester Koenig at Contemporary Records, in an attempt to just try to sell some of his compostitions. As luck would have it, Koenig became interested in having Ornette record them. He recorded two albums, slightly hampered by the presence of veteran boppers in the recording sessions (presumably to boost sales of the unknown's LPs), but it led to his getting signed by Atlantic Records in 1959 - he had a fan there, it seems, in John Lewis, the pianist in the Modern Jazz Quartet.
The music was championed by the likes of Lewis and composer Gunther Schuller, leading lights in the stillborn "third stream" movement, but to most people, it sounded alien, and Ornette with his plastic alto saxophone (not literally all-plastic) and Cherry with his tiny pocket trumpet only added to the "toy music freakishness" of the whole endeavor. In retrospect, those early Atlantic recordings don't sound controversial at all; it starts from the tradition of the Texas Tenors - just bebop and blues, but abstracted a little. The themes were as songful as any Parker had written 10-15 years previous, and the solos were also quite melodic; the difference came in the implications of freedom in the music - those themes and solos didn't have a cycle of chord progressions dictating the length of a solo by defining where a chorus started and ended, and the lack of that defining structure also included the absence of explicit bar lines. A soloist could shape phrases freely; the absence of a pianist also gave Ornette freedom to veer into tonalities that were too sharp or flat for the tempered scale of the piano, as well as veer into adjacent keys or the parallel major or minor key. It was, for all the hatred it seemed to engender, just a wild, bluesy logical extension of what Miles was after when he tried using modal underpinnings in place of chord progressions, like on Kind of Blue. But Miles, the hippest mofo in the jazz universe back then, was lauded, while Ornette was vilified.
The group had arrived in New York in '59 as a quartet, minus the piano of Bley, who would eventually fashion his own unique take on what Ornette had wrought. The bassist was Charlie Haden, and the drummer was Billy Higgins. During the two years with Atlantic, the music was taken further, with passages of collective improvisation that included both horns, and passages that were freely improvised without the statement of a theme. The ballad "Lonely Woman" became a jazz standard, at least among those who didn't scream in horror at the mere mention of Ornette's name.
Some of the LPs, from the first Contemporary ones, had Big Deal titles, like The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, etc. The simplest title belonged to one of the more unusual ones: Free Jazz, a real statement of sorts, in which the quartet was expanded to a "double quartet". Besides Ornette and Cherry, the front-line horns had Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard. The rhythm section was just a combination of the four people who held that gig in the quartet in these years: Haden and Scott LaFaro on bass, and Higgins and Ed Blackwell on drums. This was almost a full break with bop, in that these recording sessions dispensed with tunes and theme-and-solo statements; this was a collective improvisation in which most of the thematic material was supposed to come from listening closely to the other musicians.
Then Ornette "retired". For all the notoriety, attention, and popularity he had received in those two years (in spite of mass moldy-fig revulsion), it didn't translate into the sort of money that equally-famous jazz stars (i.e. white purveyors of safe music, like Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck) were getting. So he took a break, part sit-down strike, and part exploration. The pool of musicians in the quartet dispersed, plus LaFaro died in an auto accident; another bassist, Jimmy Garrison, who played on the sessions in which Ornette switched from alto to tenor saxophone, fled to the more-structured environment of the John Coltrane Quartet. Haden, Cherry, Higgins, and Blackwell would return, on occasion, in later years.
But the "damage" was done, and via his influence and the parallel explorations of others, there was plenty of activity and cross-pollination going on; Trane extended his Giant Steps innovations by adding Ornette-like freedom to his improvisational structure, many young musicians formed groups with the freebop sound of Ornette's group. These groups were well represented at the October Revolution in Jazz, which brought together avant-gardes past and present, in an attempt at forging a collective medium for musical self-determination. This was right up Ornette's alley, but... he was "retired".
But not really. There was briefly a new quartet, with Texans Bobby Bradford on trumpet and Charles Moffett on drums. Moffett had first played with Ornette in a 1940s jump blues band, à la Louis Jordan. The new bassist was a psychiatrist named David Izenzon, who had a classical music background; Izenzon's arco prowess made him almost a third horn in the group.
The quartet ended up as a trio of Ornette, Izenzon, and Moffett; at their Town Hall NYC concert, part of it was devoted to a trio set, plus there was a portion in which Ornette played alongside a rhythm and blues band, plus something even more unexpected: the premiere of a string quartet he'd written. It was recorded by Bernard Stollman, whose ESP-Disk Records was an outgrowth, of sorts, of the aforementioned October Revolution.
And then came the hibernation. Ornette "learned", during this time, a couple of new instruments, the violin and the trumpet. For the former, it was as a scratchy, sound-making device; in the case of the latter, the unorthodoxy was true as well - it was not unlike the sound of a demented Army bugler, conjuring images of some surreal F Troop roll call. In later years the trumpet playing became more musicianly. The trio returned to live performance in early 1965.
He was asked to come up with some non-traditional soundtrack music for a film called Chappaqua, in '65; he complied with a recording of the trio, augmented with Pharoah Sanders, and with occasional passages scored for strings, brass, and woodwinds, but it wasn't a syrupy "Bird with Strings" sort of orchestration. The music was deemed too challenging for the film - Shankar ended up doing the soundtrack, non-traditional, but not as aurally threatening as Ornette. Chappaqua Suite, the Europe-only album release of the rejected soundtrack, still stands well on its own. The soundtrack for Who's Crazy, trio only, with lots of Ornette's violin and trumpet, passed muster. At a London concert later in the year, Ornette unveiled another chamber music composition. Blue Note Records signed him up, and his debut for them was a pair of live trio recordings from Gyllene Cirkeln in Stockholm, from the same tour as the London concert. After the tour, the trio broke up.
The next recordings were also as a trio, but with Haden back on bass, and ten-year-old Ornette Denardo Coleman on the drums. The group expanded to a quartet, with the addition of another Texan, Dewey Redman, on tenor saxophone, and, with the occasional return of Cherry, it was sometimes a quintet. Redman's debut came on a 1968 Blue Note session that included the tandem of Garrison and Elvin Jones, from the late John Coltrane's quartet.
Then Ornette semi-disappeared again, basing himself around his rented 131 Prince Street Manhattan loft, a rehearsal and performance space. By this time, he'd formulated enough of his Great Unified Theory of music, harmolodics, that he would begin teaching it to some musicians. And, having dabbled in rockish forms here and there, he formed a full-time rock band called Prime Time which would become his main vehicle for many years; they debuted with Dancing in Your Head, as part of a deal with A&M Records, which became another one of a series of major-label deals in which the suits had no clue about how to sell his music - other culprits include CBS and Island Records. Some of the alumni from the acoustic era, meanwhile, kept that music alive and evolving by forming Old and New Dreams near the end of the 70s.
Ornette's style hasn't really changed much in 40 years. It has gotten more refined, more technically proficient (not bad for a guy about to turn 70 years old), but that deceptive sameness has been used as a peg on which to hang all manner of different clothes in these decades, from freebop, to all-out Free Jazz, R&B (both old school and new), world music, the symphonic context of the Naked Lunch soundtrack, and even a recording with Yoko Ono. All befitting the universality he sought in harmolodics, and pretty good for a man who was once thought of as a jazz-faking clown.