Coleman burst onto the jazz scene in 1959 with his album The Shape of Jazz to Come, on which he improvised without a pre-determined chord structure. His 1960 double quartet recording Free Jazz, a 37-minute collective improvisation, gave a name (not always accurate) to jazz's growing avant-garde. In later years, he created a funk group called Prime Time and composed for orchestra. He is also the creator of a music theory system, impenetrable to most, called "harmolodics."
Coleman has been alternately honored and reviled for his innovations, but in recent years he has enjoyed a burst of appreciation from the jazz establishment. Earlier this year, Jazz at Lincoln Center performed a program of his works, and JALC artistic director Wynton Marsalis, often seen as a leading traditionalist, will deliver a tribute at the Gish Prize ceremony.
The 11-year-old Gish Prize is voted by a committee of leading arts figures, and has previously been awarded to theater director Lloyd Richards, choreographer Bill T. Jones, and architect Frank Gehry, among others.