Coleman was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, where he began performing R&B and bebop initially on tenor saxophone. Seeking a way to work his way out of his home town, he took a job in 1949 with a Silas Green from New Orleans traveling show and then with touring rhythm and blues shows. After a show in Baton Rouge, he was assaulted and his saxophone was destroyed.
He switched to alto, which has remained his primary instrument, first playing it in New Orleans after the Baton Rouge incident. He then joined the band of Pee Wee Crayton and travelled with them to Los Angeles. He worked at various jobs, including as an elevator operator, while pursuing his musical career.
Even from the beginning of Coleman's career, his music and playing were in many ways unorthodox. His approach to harmony and chord progression was far less rigid than that of bebop performers; he was increasingly interested in playing what he heard rather than fitting it into predetermined chorus-structures and harmonies. His raw, highly vocalized sound and penchant for playing "in the cracks" of the scale led many Los Angeles jazz musicians to regard Coleman's playing as out-of-tune; he sometimes had difficulty finding like-minded musicians with whom to perform. Nevertheless, pianist Paul Bley was an early supporter and musical collaborator.
In 1958 Coleman led his first recording session for Contemporary, Something Else!!!!: The Music of Ornette Coleman. The session also featured trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Don Payne and Walter Norris on piano.
1959 found Coleman very busy. He signed a multi-album contract with Atlantic Records and released Tomorrow Is the Question!, a quartet album, with Shelly Manne on drums, and excluding the piano, which he would not use again until the 1990s. Next Coleman brought double bassist Charlie Haden – one of a handful of his most important collaborators – into a regular group with Haden, Cherry, and Higgins. (All four had played with Paul Bley the previous year.) They recorded The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959. It 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 – if somewhat loosely – blues-based and often quite melodic, the album's compositions were considered at that time harmonically unusual and unstructured. Some musicians and critics saw Coleman as an iconoclast; others, including conductor Leonard Bernstein and composer Virgil Thomson regarded him as a genius and an innovator.
Coleman's quartet received a lengthy – and sometimes controversial – engagement at New York City's famed Five Spot jazz club. Such notable figures as The Modern Jazz Quartet, Leonard Bernstein and Lionel Hampton were favorably impressed, and offered encouragement. (Hampton was so impressed he reportedly asked to perform with the quartet; Bernstein later helped Haden obtain a composition grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.) Opinion was, however, divided: trumpeter Miles Davis famously declared Coleman was "all screwed up inside," (although this comment was later recanted) and Roy Eldridge stated, "I'd listened to him all kinds of ways. I listened to him high and I listened to him cold sober. I even played with him. I think he's jiving baby."
On the Atlantic recordings, Scott LaFaro sometimes replaces Charlie Haden on double bass and either Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell features on Drums. These recordings are collected in a boxed set, Beauty Is a Rare Thing.
Part of the uniqueness of Coleman's early sound came from his use of a plastic saxophone. He had first bought a plastic horn in Los Angeles in 1954 because he was unable to afford a metal saxophone, though he didn't like the sound of the plastic instrument at first. Coleman later claimed that it sounded drier, without the pinging sound of metal.
In more recent years he has played a metal saxophone.
In 1960, Coleman recorded Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, which featured a double quartet, including Cherry and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, Haden and LaFaro on bass, and both Higgins and Blackwell on drums. The record was recorded in stereo, with a reed/brass/bass/Drums quartet isolated in each stereo channel. Free Jazz was, at nearly 40 minutes, the lengthiest recorded continuous jazz performance to date, and was instantly one of Coleman's most controversial albums. The music features a regular but complex pulse, one drummer playing "straight" while the other played double-time; the thematic material is a series of brief, dissonant fanfares; as is conventional in jazz, there are a series of solos features for each member of the band, but the other soloists are free to chime in as they wish, producing some extraordinary passages of collective improvisation by the full octet.
Coleman intended “Free Jazz” simply to be the album title, but his growing reputation placed him at the forefront of jazz innovation, and free jazz was soon considered a new genre, though Coleman has expressed discomfort with the term.
Among the reasons Coleman may not have entirely approved of 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 that came before it than is sometimes popularly imagined. (Several early tunes of his, for instance, are clearly based on favorite bop chord changes like "Out of Nowhere" and "I Got Rhythm.") Coleman very rarely played standards, concentrating on his own compositions, of which there seems to be an endless flow. There are exceptions, though, including a classic reading (virtually a recomposition) of "Embraceable You" for Atlantic, and an improvisation on Thelonious Monk's "Criss-Cross" recorded with Gunther Schuller.
After the Atlantic period and into the early part of the 1970s, Coleman's music became more angular and engaged fully with the jazz avant-garde which had developed in part around Coleman's innovations.
His quartet dissolved, and Coleman formed a new trio with David Izenzon on bass, and Charles Moffett on drums. Coleman began to extend the sound-range of his music, introducing accompanying string players (though far from the territory of "Parker With Strings") and playing trumpet and violin himself; 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. (Haden would later sometimes join this trio to form a two-bass quartet.)
Between 1965 and 1967 Coleman signed with legendary jazz record label Blue Note Records and released a number of recordings starting with the influential recordings of the trio At the Golden Circle Stockholm.
In 1966, Coleman was criticised for recording The Empty Foxhole, a trio with Haden, and Coleman's son Denardo Coleman – who was ten years old. Some regarded this as perhaps an ill-advised publicity ploy on Coleman's part, and judged the move as a misstep. Others, however, noted that despite his youth, Denardo had studied drumming for several years, his technique – which, though unrefined, was respectable and enthusiastic – owed more to pulse-oriented free jazz drummers like Sunny Murray than to bebop drumming. Denardo has matured into a respected musician, and has been his father's primary drummer since the late 1970s.
He also continued to explore his interest in string textures – from the Town Hall concert in 1962, culminating in Skies of America in 1972. (Sometimes this had a practical value, as it facilitated his group's appearance in the UK in 1965, where jazz musicians were under a quota arrangement but classical performers were exempt.)
In 1969, Coleman was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.
Some critics have suggested Coleman's frequent use of the vaguely-defined term harmolodics is a musical MacGuffin: a red herring of sorts designed to occupy critics over-focused on Coleman's sometimes unorthodox compositional style. Jerry Garcia played guitar on three tracks from Coleman's Virgin Beauty (1988) - "Three Wishes," "Singing In The Shower," and "Desert Players." Twice in 1993, Coleman joined the Grateful Dead on stage playing the band's "The Other One," "Wharf Rat," "Stella Blue," and covering Bobby Bland's "Turn On Your Lovelight," among others . Another unexpected association was with guitarist Pat Metheny, with whom Coleman recorded Song X (1985); though released under Metheny's name, Coleman was essentially co-leader (contributing all the compositions).
In 1991, Coleman played on the soundtrack for David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch; the orchestra was conducted by Howard Shore. It is notable among other things for including a rare sighting of Coleman playing a jazz standard: Thelonious Monk's blues line “Misterioso.” Two 1972 (pre-electric) Coleman recordings, "Happy House" and "Foreigner in a Free Land" were used in Gus Van Sant's 1995 ''Finding Forrester.
The mid-1990s saw a flurry of activity from Coleman: He released four records between 1995 and 1996, and for the first time in many years worked regularly with piano players (either Geri Allen or Joachim Kühn).
Coleman has rarely performed on other musicians' records. Exceptions include extensive performances on albums by Jackie McLean in 1967 (New and Old Gospel, on which he played trumpet), and James Blood Ulmer in 1978, and cameo appearances on Yoko Ono's Plastic Ono Band album (1970), Jamaaladeen Tacuma's Renaissance Man (1983), Joe Henry's Scar (2001) and Lou Reed's The Raven (2003).
In September 2006 he released a live album titled Sound Grammar with his newest quartet (Denardo drumming and two bassists, Gregory Cohen and Tony Falanga). This is his first album of new material in ten years, and was recorded in Germany in 2005. It won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for music.
Coleman was performing at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee on June 17, 2007 when he collapsed due to heat stroke on a day when temperatures peaked at 95 degrees. He was rushed to a nearby hospital where his condition soon stabilized.
On February 11, 2007, Ornette Coleman was honored with a Grammy award for lifetime achievement, in recognition of this legacy.