Jazz legend Ornette Coleman, the visionary saxophonist who pioneered "free jazz" and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007, has died.

Publicist Ken Weinstein says Coleman died in Manhattan. He was 85.

The Texas-born Coleman was only the second jazz artist to win the Pulitzer Prize in music when he was honoured for his 2006 album Sound Grammar.

His quartet shook up the jazz establishment when it burst on the scene in 1959 with the album The Shape of Jazz to Come, which liberated musicians to freely improvise off the melody.

He became one of the world's most respected musicians, his contributions to jazz sometimes compared to those of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker.

In the late 1950s, he originated "free jazz," challenging the bebop establishment by abandoning the conventional song form and liberating musicians to freely improvise off of the melody rather than the underlying chord changes.

Coleman broke down the barrier between leader and sidemen, giving his band members freedom to solo, interact and develop their ideas.

Though largely self-taught, Coleman would create his own "harmolodic" concept of music, which also became a life philosophy. The music derived from a uniquely free interaction between the musicians, without being tethered to rigid meters and conventional harmonic structure. He referred to it as "removing the caste system from sound".

"I want everyone to have an equal relationship to the results," Coleman said in 2007. "I don't tell them what or how to play ... sometimes the drum is leading, sometimes the bass is leading ... I don't think I'm the leader, I'm just paying the bills."

In his later years, the jazz revolutionary became a respected elder statesman with the accompanying honours, including membership in the elite American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Grammy lifetime achievement award, even though none of his recordings ever won a Grammy.