Coleman was raised in Fort Worth, Texas,where he began performing R&B and bebop initially on tenor saxophone; he later switched to alto, which has remained his primary instrument. Coleman's timbre is perhaps one of the most easily recognized in jazz: his keening, crying sound draws heavily on blues music.
Coleman moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950's. He worked at various jobs, including as an elevator operator, while persuing his musical career. Coleman's music and playing were in many ways, even from the beginning of his career, rather unorthodox: Coleman was less concerned with proper equal temper tuning than with relative pitch; his sense of harmony was not as rigid as most swing music or bebop performers, and was easily changed and often implied. Many Los Angeles jazz musicians regarded Coleman's playing as out-of-tune, and he sometimes had difficulty finding like-minded musicians with whom to perform.
In 1958 Coleman led his first recording session for Something Else! The Music of Cornette Coleman. He eventually settled on a steady group and released The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959, on Atlantic Records.
The Shape of Jazz to Come was, according to critic Steve Huey "a watershed event in the genesis of avant-garde jazz, profoundly steering its future course and throwing down a gauntlet that some still haven't come to grips with." While definitely blues based and often quite melodic, the album's songs were harmonically unusual and unpredictable. Some musicians and critics saw Coleman as talentless hack; others regarded him as a genius.
Coleman's Quartet received a lenghty engagement at [[New York City]'s famed Five Spot jazz club. Such notable figures as Leonard Bernstein and Lionel Hampton offered encouragement, while jazz trumpeter Miles Davis famously declared Coleman was "All screwed up inside."
On his best-known early recordings for the Atlantic Records, Coleman led a piano-less quartet with Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden or Scott LaFaro on double bass and either Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell on drums. These recordings are collected in a boxed-set, 'Beauty is a Rare Thing'.
In 1961, Coleman recorded Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, which featured a "double quartet," including Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet. The record was recorded in stereo, with a quartet isolated in each stereo channel.Free Jazz was, at nearly 40 minutes, the lengthiest jazz recording to date. The music generally featured jazz-orineted melody and steady, swinging pulse, but Coleman's unusual use of harmony and group structure remained controversial
One reason why Coleman may not have been happy with the term Free Jazz is that his music contains a considerable amount of composition. His melodic material, although skeletal, strongly recalls the melodies that Charlie Parker wrote over "standard" harmonies, and in general the music is closer to the bebop which came before it than is sometimes popularly imagined. Like Thelonious Monk, however, Coleman very rarely played standards, concentrating on his own compositions, of which there seems to be an endless flow.
After the Atlantic period, in the early part of the 1970s, Coleman's music became more angular and engaged fully with the jazz avant garde which had developed at that time. He began playing trumpet and violin; he initially had little conventional technique, and used the instruments to make large, unrestrained gestures. His friendship with Albert Ayler influenced Coleman's development on trumpet and violin,
Later, however, Coleman, like Miles Davis before him, had what looks on paper like an epiphany and took to playing with electrified instruments in a Jazz fusion mode. Albums like 'Virgin Beauty' and 'Of Human Feelings' used rock and funk rhythms, electric guitars and keyboards, but the music was still much the same under the hood. These performances have the same angular melodies and simultaneous group improvisations -- what Joe Zawinul referred to as "nobody solos, everybody solos" and what Coleman calls "Harmolodics" -- and although the nature of the pulse has altered, Coleman's own rhythmic approach has not.
Some critics have suggested Coleman's frequent use the vaguely-defined term "Harmolodic" is a musical MacGuffin: A red herring of sorts designed to occupy critics over-focused on Coleman's sometimes unorthodox compositional style.
Although now an elder statesman of jazz, Coleman continues to push himself into unusual playing situations, often with much younger musicians or musicians from radically different musical cultures, and continues to perform regularly. He has influenced virtually every saxophonist of a modern disposition, and nearly every such jazz musician, of the generation which followed him.