Coleman was part of the generation that emerged in the 1950s, just as the bebop revolution of Parker and Monk was starting to cool, and is still collectively known, 60 years later, as “the avant garde”. His principal contemporaries were Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane, with whom he shared a lifelong refusal to compromise his approach. Eventually he was granted a place in the pantheon, and on one of his last appearances in London, at the Barbican in 2005, he seemed moved by the sheer warmth of the sustained applause with which a full house greeted every piece.
To an idiom that, by the 1950s, had evolved from its rudimentary origins into something that set musical challenges requiring the highest degree of sophistication, Coleman restored the naturalness of the human voice. In the admiring words of the drummer Shelly Manne, he sounded “like a person laughing and a person crying”.
Coleman was a sophisticate, too, but it was a sophistication entirely of his own design, operated according to his own rules. Rejecting the tempered scale and the conventional methods of formal transposition, he composed and played using a self-invented technique he called “harmolodics”. Although the result always had that natural human quality characteristic of Coleman, his occasional responses to attempts to get him to explain its principles always ended up with the questioner’s brain in a tangle. But whether in a duet with his long-time bassist Charlie Haden, in front of the London Symphony Orchestra as they recorded his symphonic work The Skies of America, or leading his electrified Prime Time band, his playing seldom failed to make a deep and direct emotional connection.