His death was confirmed by his publicist, Ken Weinstein.
In occasionally dispatching with harmony and rhythm, the Texas-born Coleman delighted some musicians and listeners and irritated others.
"Coleman's tone (which purposely wavered in pitch) rattled some listeners, and his solos were emotional and followed their own logic," Scott Yanow wrote on Allmusic.com
But, Yanow adds, the saxophonist's records -- including "The Shape of Jazz to Come" (1959) and "Free Jazz" (1960) -- proved to be the sound of the future.
"In time, his approach would be quite influential, and the quartet's early records still sound advanced many decades later," he wrote.
Born Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1930, Coleman got his first saxophone as a child. Right away, he knew what to do with it: just start playing, he said in an interview with Cadence
magazine published in 1995.
"No one has to learn to spell to talk, right? ... Music is the same way," he said. "If you can play it and bypass all the rest of the things, you're still doing as great as someone that has spent 40 years trying to find out how to do that."
He was unsatisfied with the bebop he heard as a Los Angeles musician in the '50s, even though it was a break from earlier styles.
"They were playing changes," he told the Guardian
in 2007. "They weren't playing movements. I was trying to play ideas, changes, movements and non-transposed notes."
Coleman remained intensely engaged with music theory throughout his life, eventually creating a concept he called "Harmolodics," in which all aspects of sound are given equal weight.
His ideas, especially at the beginning, didn't always go over well with the musical establishment.
"Some questioned his instrumental competence; the outspoken Miles Davis questioned Coleman's sanity," wrote Francis Davis in a 1985 Atlantic story
But Coleman's sound became part of musical culture, and his bandmates -- including Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Billy Higgins and James Blood Ulmer -- spread it in their own projects. Others, including Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, incorporated aspects of free jazz into their music as well.
Rock 'n' rollers paid attention, too: Lou Reed considered him a hero.
Eventually, the establishment came around. Coleman's recording "Sound Grammar" won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in music. He won a lifetime achievement Grammy the same year. He was also the recipient of a 1994 MacArthur "genius grant" and a 2004 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.
He would be the last one to pull rank, however. To Coleman, the music was all about ideas -- and they were open to anybody.
"The idea is the highest quality of expression," he told the Guardian. "It is immortal, it is without class and it doesn't care anything about wealth. ... The only thing that I'm trying to do right now, honest to God, is to free myself to the supreme order of ideas -- not style, not color, not notes, not rhythm. I could go and get my horn and play for you, and believe me, I would play something. I don't know what it is, but I do know I would never have played it."