Coleman won the Pulitzer Prize for musical composition and performed live on Saturday Night Live. Although neither event is covered in Shirley
Clarke’s classically idiosyncratic documentary-profile, viewers still get a
memorable sense of the artist and his music Ornette:
Made in America (trailer here), which opens in
New York this Friday at the IFC Center, as part of Milestone Films’ Project Shirley restoration and
Coleman’s place in the jazz world would take some doing, especially in 1985,
before his late career Grammy and Pulitzer accolades finally came cascading
in. Coleman was one of the pioneers of
the Free Jazz movement, whose legendary engagement at New York’s Five Spot club
sharply divided the jazz world. However,
you will not find his creation story here.
Instead, Clarke’s approach to Coleman the man and the musician is deeply
rooted in the then current moment, yet also rather timeless.
the mid 80’s, the establishment (broadly defined) was just starting to
understand Coleman was a force to be reckoned with. As the film opens, the mayor of Fort Worth
presents Coleman with a copy of the key to the city (the original he explains
had been sent up into space or something), in the hours before the alto
saxophonist-multi-instrumentalist will debut Skies of America, a major new composition integrating a symphony
orchestra with his avant-garde electric combo Prime Time. Hizzoner’s speech might strike New York
hipsters as a bit corny, but his drummer-manager-son Denardo is quite pleased
his father is finally being recognized.
fact, there is something all-encompassing and Whitmanesque about Coleman’s
deeply blues-influenced music that is perfectly represented by a title like Skies of America, as well as the mayor’s
patriotically Texan remarks. Shrewdly,
Clarke uses this fairly accessible work as the musical centerpiece for the
film, much like Sonny Rollins’ concert premiere of Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra dominates Robert Mugge’s
was probably no documentarian better suited to Coleman’s personality and
aesthetic than Shirley Clarke. Her style
of filmmaking perfectly reflects his music—fragmentary and baffling to the
willfully uninitiated, but there strong compositional conception underlying it
all. Her visual sensibility might be far
from infallible (a kid with an iPad could put her space age special effects to
shame these days), but she demonstrates a rock solid command of Coleman’s acutely
syncopated rhythms and had a keen insight into his creative milieu.
except for perhaps Clint Eastwood, no filmmaker can equal Clarke’s position as
a filmmaker whose work promotes and is informed by America’s great original art
form. The Connection, which launched Project
Shirley, is a milestone (if you will) of independent filmmaking, in large
measure due to Freddie Redd’s absolutely classic tunes. Likewise, her viscerally naturalistic social
issue drama, The Cool World, derives considerable
power from Mal Waldron’s soundtrack (which in turn was rerecorded by Dizzy
Gillespie’s combo for the official OST LP version). There was even the non-narrative short, Bridges-Go-Round, featuring the music of
Teo Macero. Ornette is sort of a summing up of her jazz evangelism, shining a
spotlight on one of the most controversial yet at the time underappreciated
artists to ever set foot on the bandstand.
and again, Clarke alternately emphasizes Coleman’s blues roots and hardscrabble
early life (even filming young actors portraying the alto saxophonist in
dramatized vignettes of his formative years) and his compulsively forward
looking (almost futuristic) orientation.
The fact that most of Coleman’s philosophizing makes little to no sense
is hardly important. No, he never really
explains his theory of harmolodics in Ornette
and she wisely never pushes him.
The Coleman seen in Ornette matches the accounts I have personally heard from musician-friends
who have had conversations with him and say it was the coolest thing ever, even
though they have no idea what he said.
Any film conveying that experience is worth seeing, but Ornette has considerably more to offer. A highly entertaining time-capsule of a jazz
documentary, Ornette: Made in America is
recommended for anyone who wants their ears stretched a bit when it opens this
Friday (8/31) at the IFC Center.
Labels: Documentary, Ornette Coleman, Shirley Clarke