July 29, 2015
3 mins read

When Ornette Coleman passed away in June at the age of 85, the music world lost one of the last truly iconoclastic figures of 20th-century music. Along with fellow saxophonists John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, Coleman created a sonic demarcation between the traditional and radical future of jazz. The title of Coleman’s visionary 1959 release, The Shape of Jazz to Come made his intentions clear and, more than half-a-century later, that title became unequivocally prophetic. Coleman’s album Free Jazz (1960) was eventually used to describe an entire musical movement. His music influenced everyone from The Grateful Dead and the ’70s NYC No Wave scene to John Zorn and Pat Metheny. Shirley Clarke’s 1985 film, Ornette: Made in America, remains the definitive, and only, documentary on the man who both polarized and revitalized jazz music.

A project 20 years in the making, Ornette: Made in America, utilizes film and video footage, interviews, reenactments of Coleman’s life, and experimental passages to tell the story of the jazzman’s life and influence. Clarke (1919-’97) was a pioneering artist in her own right. A staunchly independent filmmaker, her body of work included ’50s underground cinema, her 1961 filmic adaptation of Jack Gelber’s jazz-driven play, The Connection, 1963’s Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel With the World, which earned Clarke an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, and 1967’s Portrait of Jason, a documentary/feature-length interview of a gay African-American hustler. For the most part, this eclectic oeuvre seems to make Clarke the ideal director for a biopic about Coleman.

The film opens with Coleman receiving the Key to the City from the mayor of his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, who declares Sept. 19, 1983 as “Ornette Coleman Day.” Then the action cuts to the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and Coleman’s electric ensemble, Prime Time, performing his composition Skies of America. For the uninitiated, this scene might be a fitting introduction to Coleman’s music, which was centered on a musical philosophy which he called Harmolodics.

In the film, Coleman offers his own somewhat-metaphysical definition of his pioneering method the detonated ideas of multi-harmonies, polytonality, polyrhythms, and actual compositional structure. At its most base level, Harmolodics essentially gave the musicians complete freedom to improvise simultaneously, a kind of call-and-response that usually featured a basic melodic motif that the assembled musicians would swirl through and around in group improvisation. These parallel streams of sound that Coleman’s music demands can be many things, depending on the listener: rapturous, furious, even off-putting. But his music always stood alone, and continues to exist in its own galaxy of sound to this day. In the film, jazz writer Martin Williams compares it to “Dixieland Jazz,” an apt analogy, albeit if the old-style, hot jazz had been beamed in from another dimension. The footage of the symphony playing with Coleman and Prime Time features a kind of “high-brow”-meets-street-level version of Harmolodics in practice, as elegiac string passages merge with the band’s percolating avant-funk rendition of the classic Coleman piece, “Theme from a Symphony.”

Over the course of the film’s 77-minute running time, Clarke juxtaposes (at times comically bad) reenactments of Coleman’s youth with fantastic clips of his various combos. Scenes of New York City in 1968, featuring Coleman on alto sax, bassist Charlie Haden, and Coleman’s then-12-year-old son Denardo on drums, are crucial clips of the artist at work. This writer’s personal favorite Coleman lineup is captured in an all-too-brief clip from 1972, as Coleman, Haden, trumpeter Don Cherry, saxophonist Dewey Redman, and drummer Ed Blackwell conjure a high-voltage delivery of collective improvisation. Footage from 1973 chronicles Coleman’s pioneering foray into global music, as he and musicologist-clarinetist Robert Palmer (not the ’80s MTV suave popster) are filmed in the desert of Morocco performing with hypnotic, rising-and-falling wail of The Master Musicians of Jajouka.

Further archival footage is employed to show the range of Coleman’s music, along with appearances by countercultural figureheads William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin and jazz composer George Russell, among others.

While Clarke’s juxtaposition of interviews with her own imaginative transitional scenes “work,” they can at times (understandably) seem dated. Other scenes, however, are ludicrous. The sight of Coleman wearing an orange jumpsuit and beanie cap, riding an exercise bike across outer space is probably more a testament to Coleman’s good nature than Clarke’s good screenwriting. Griping aside, Ornette: Made in America, is the only documentary of Coleman, and while it might not convert the curious, it will surely deliver the goods to the diehards.

Folio is your guide to entertainment and culture around and near Jacksonville, Florida. We cover events, concerts, restaurants, theatre, sports, art, happenings, and all things about living and visiting Jax. Folio serves more than two million readers across Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, including St. Augustine, The Beaches, and Fernandina.

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