The Shape of Jazz

Shirley Clarke, Ornette: Made in America, 1985, black-and-white and color film, 77 minutes.

SHIRLEY CLARKE’S PORTRAIT MOVIE Ornette: Made in America (1985) is an intricately knit series of riffs on free jazz giant Ornette Coleman, one of the greatest living artists twentieth-century modernism produced. What makes the movie thrilling beginning to end is the score that Coleman himself wrote for it, largely derived from one of his major works, Skies of America (1972), a composition for symphony orchestra and free jazz combo. The mono sound track on this newly restored version—supervised by Audio Mechanic’s John Polito working in conjunction with the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Ross Lipman, who supervised the restoration of the visuals—is brilliant. Using the original sound and picture elements, they found a richness that was lost in the 1985 film prints.

Ornette: Made in America is a movie about process: Coleman’s process of making music and Clarke’s process of using the moviemaking apparatus to convey something about his method of making music and living in the world. The backstory of how the movie came into being is no less fascinating. Beginning in the late 1960s, Clarke trained her cameras intermittently on Coleman, intending to make a movie primarily about his relationship to his son Denardo, who began to play percussion in his father’s group when he was only ten years old. The fragments of 8-mm and 16-mm film and primitive analog video languished in boxes, mostly under Coleman’s bed, until the early ’80s when Kathelin Hoffman Gray asked Clarke to document a performance of Skies of America. It was to be played by the Fort Worth Symphony and Coleman’s Prime Time combo to celebrate the 1983 opening of Caravan of Dreams, an ambitious, racially integrated multimedia arts center the likes of which no one in that part of Texas had seen before. Clarke and Gray hired cinematographer Ed Lachman to shoot the performance and Coleman’s return to the now officially desegregated city where he was born. (The police expected riots at the arts center’s opening.) Clarke and Lachman decided to shoot in yet another format, Super 16, considered experimental at the time.

The footage of the concert frames the film and gives it gravity. Clarke then spent three years editing the material, pulling together her own improvised sessions with Coleman—shot between 1968 and 1984—with this precise, visually eloquent rendering of the concert. The interaction of these two cinematic modes parallels that of the symphony orchestra with Coleman’s Prime Time combo in Skies of America. Memorably riffing conversations and inspired fragments of portraiture are woven into a crazy quilt of electronic editing. The movie’s only flaw is Clarke’s use of mid-’80s art-video image processing—thirty years ago it already looked like a garish cliché—which decidedly does not jazz up the movie.

During the interview sessions, Coleman is marvelously at ease with Clarke, who is occasionally heard but almost never seen on camera. Speaking in his inimitable voice (he always sounds as if he has an imaginary reed in his mouth), he ruminates on his theories of music and his relationship to his son, who has continued to play percussion with his father as well as becoming his manager. He talks about his admiration for Buckminister Fuller. And you hear how, beginning in the early ’70s, his playing and composition—which, discomfiting as it sounded to traditionalists, was rooted in the jazz and blues of the American South—came under the influence of world music, in particular that of the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Clarke’s brief clips of Coleman’s visits to Nigeria and Morocco and of William Burroughs and Robert Palmer, who introduced Coleman to Jajouka, are gems, as is a clip of Burroughs reading. Toward the end of the movie, Clarke slyly asks Coleman to tell “the castration story,” and he launches into a strange and most touching attempt to sort out the relations among sexual attractiveness, sexual attraction, and music. Coleman’s theory and practice of music involves the connections of breath, body, heart, and mind. Ornette: Made in America holds a mirror to the man inseparable from his art.

The movie was Clarke’s last major work. Shortly after its completion, Alzheimer’s disease began to claim her, and she died in 1997. Ornette: Made in America is the second of Clarke’s movies to be restored and released by Milestone Films under what is dubbed “Project Shirley.” The first restoration, The Connection (1961), was released earlier this year. Soon to come is her masterpiece, the 1967 Portrait of Jason.

Ornette: Made in America is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York and will open in other major cities on Friday, September 7.