An Analysis and Transcription of “Peace” by Ornette Coleman

Tim Wingate

Redondo Beach, California

If you open up any jazz history book the likelihood of finding the name Ornette Coleman is highly probable. His place in music history is unmistakable and it’s important to understand why. Ornette Coleman started his musical endeavors in 1947 and by 1959 he had shaped his talents and skill enough to arouse the ears of Atlantic records. The second of many albums for this label was titled The Shape of Jazz to Come.  By then, the jazz community was divided into two groups that considered him genius and otherwise a fool.  Even today there is still controversy surrounding the legitimacy of his music. In order to know his music and understand its place in history, it is essential to understand this man’s approach and the inner workings of his compositional and improvisational style. “Peace” along with the rest of the numbers for this session was recorded in 1959.

Part of the problem leading to the gravest of misunderstandings is that anyone can claim to be playing free. No structure, no changes, no problem! If a person is free from organization how hard could it be right? Heed warning jazzers, as for those of you devoted to your craft, consider this:  if you think free jazz isn’t legit, what about a musician claiming “it’s a jazz thing,” where the “jazz thing” has nothing to do with tradition, melody, harmony, rhythm or any of those other elements and has more to do with wrong notes. Anyone can claim to be playing “jazzy.” Whereas devotees understand that legitimacy has to do with listening, practice, and at least one of your two feet planted in the past. The same can be said for free jazz. There is much more going on in underlying structures and melody. Indeed the personnel on “Peace” were all playing “free jazz”, but in the analysis to follow you can find a few examples of structure.

The prominent features of the melody are set in the following table

M. 1-4

The opening four bar phrase is adventurous, starting with a dominant function (F#7) and resolves to the sub-dominant with extensions (Emaj#11). Common tones move the melody to an E7sus in bar 4.

M. 5-7

A modulation to D#m7 produces a i-V-i-bVI cadence. Common tone of F# helps smooth the transition to the new key.

M. 8-10

Sequence of preceding phrase ½ step lower

M. 11-12

V-i cadence in D# minor

M. 13-23

Descending D# locrian bass solo

In the first few bars, the horns coupled with the introduction of the rhythm section create a bold statement in measure 2 (example 1). The deceptive cadence and the unfolding phrase define one of the key elements used for interplay throughout the solos. The rhythm section embraces the essence of the statement to later provide a sense of form and continuity throughout the evolution of the song. This excursion was repeatedly drawn upon to lead the listener to something vaguely reminiscent of the familiar. 

Implied form through repetition of cadential figures

Example 2

M. 35-36

Same pitch and rhythm found in the bass line followed with an upward phrase by the saxophone.

Example 3


Similar bass line as the bass solo from the head in M. 46-55. Cadential figures occur in the bass in M. 57 and a final resolution in M. 58. This figure may have been extended because of listening to the resolution of an implied V-I in the sax line.

Example 4

M. 76-79 

Descending figure in the sax line may have lead to a brief F# pedal and release of tension while, again, concluding in the low E from the bass.

Discernable function

The setting of little harmonic restraint lends itself to a sound of complexity or even disarray, but if you strip away the layers or counterpoint from the bass, it’s easy to understand that something very diatonic in essence makes up at least part of the whole picture.  One of the most compelling and tangible elements found in the score are Ornette Coleman’s great melodies. Listening to one line often presents a very basic, tangible progression that is sensible to the ear. Coleman was a descendent of the bop period and some extensions are unarguable, but the majority of melodies come from his horn in very wholesome, linear fashion, even entertaining the phrasing of popular sounds and great lines that often imply the simplest of chord patterns and cadences.

Although brief, there are examples of a rhythmic motive throughout the sax solo. Ornette Coleman is mindful of variety, sparingly using motivic development as a contrast to the typical melody/compliment structures.   Forget not, the same motives and sequences were used to provide unity even with a free tonality.  The following table shows some of the motivic examples found in his solo.

Small structures

Example 5

M. 23-29

A rhythmic motive provides for a strong opening to the solo. The same motive can be found with variation later in M. 43-44.

Example 6

M. 91-94

This example keeps the energy of the sextuplet subdivision alive from the flurry of notes in previous phrases. The melodic curve of this phrase is used in example 7.

Example 7

M. 96-100

A motive that makes use of off beats to drive the meter and to settle the listener back to a more rhythmically stable 4/4 feel from the sextuplets mentioned in example 6. Arguably, an altered descendent of example 6, only now in a different subdivision.

Throughout the sax solo there are many examples of large structures interwoven into the musical fabric. Guide tone lines are subtly linked to Ornette Coleman’s melodies, making them an underlying force that creates a sense of tension and release over periods of multiple phrases. This is an example of Ornette Coleman revealing his control of the harmonic and rhythmic logic throughout the unfolding of his solo.

Large Structures

Example 8

M. 27-31

In the beginning moments Ornette Coleman sets up a rhythmic motive and an F#7 chord, opening the solo with the same sound as the beginning of the head. By measure 27 a modulation is already underway pushing to the key of D major. This imploding line harnessed from above by F#, turns on itself, driven by the chromatic guide tones from below ultimately leading to an upward arc in the line and a V-I cadence in D major (M. 30-31).

Example 9

M. 36-42

 This example shows a line in the Eb major sonority. It’s an uncommon way of approaching a guide tone line in a diatonic setting. There is no sequencing to lead the listener to an obvious outcome.  Notice each member of the line is dominated by the phrase in which it occurs. All occur at different places inside the phrase, but all still descend to a sense of rest in M. 42.    

Example 10

M. 47-58

In this example Charlie Haden is busy leading a downward line using what is by now a very familiar set of pitches. This line is very similar to his D# locrian solo stated earlier in the head reminding every keen listener of implied form. Ornette Coleman plays so well against this line when it comes around in his solo. Maybe it was preplanned for the figure to occur intermittently throughout the solo sections. This line was intended to be familiar, that’s for sure. He wrote the head so that the bass solo was a break from the activity and changing tonalities of the ensemble. It’s arguable, but the likelihood is Ornette Coleman heard this and started a stepwise guide tone line upward against the downward stepwise motion in the bass, creating an abstract counterpoint. Once the upward line has taken its natural course of release, he keeps the line cohesive by imitating the rhythmic scheme of the bass while using a downward guide tone line. Ejecting from this line he sets up the implied resolution and form blatantly, with a phrase sounding like the opening of the head.

Peace and free jazz have found their place in history, giving the chords and form a push in a new direction. From the above analysis I hope listeners and readers can develop a further understanding of the structures found in Ornette Coleman’s improvisation on “Peace.”  While listening to his work keep these findings in mind and if you get the chance, see him for yourself.  


The Shape of Jazz to Come. Perf. Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Billy

Higgins. Atlantic Records, 1959

Wilson, Peter N. Ornette Coleman His life and Music. Berkeley Hills Books Berkeley,



Yanow, Scott. Ornette Coleman Biography. AEC One Stop Group Inc. 5 October 2004.

            < http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:ys98s35ba3pg~T1>

Goldman, Vivian. Ornette Coleman Biography. Harmolodic Inc. 5 October 2004.


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