Ornette Coleman Soars Again in Shirley Clarke’s (Inter)Stellar Doc


When the news hit that Ornette Coleman had died, on June 11, it wasn’t exactly clear who’d be mourning him: There would be the usual handful of hardcore jazz nerds, of course, and perhaps a few fans of the exquisite, stormcloud-silver score he co-wrote, with Howard Shore, for David Cronenberg’s 1991 Naked Lunch. But on social media and in the media at large, the outpouring of grief for multi-instrumentalist and experimental-jazz pioneer Ornette — to call him “Coleman” seems to detract from his one-of-a-kind radiance — was overwhelming. Even people who might have been familiar only with his best-known composition, 1959’s “Lonely Woman,” a ballad with strong bones and a deep, mother-of-pearl luster, knew that something, someone, spectacular had just gone away from us.

But to be too sad about Ornette’s passing is to do him and his remarkable legacy a disservice. Better to revel in the exuberance of his music, in the calm, wry wisdom of his demeanor, and in his glorious wardrobe of custom-made suits. That means now is the time to see Shirley Clarke’s superb, vigorously expressive 1984 documentary Ornette: Made in America, beginning July 17 at Spectacle, in Williamsburg, as part of the screening space’s weeklong series “Something Else: A Celebration of Ornette Coleman on Film.” The event also includes a number of other Ornette-themed films, including a showing of Conrad Rooks’s psychedelic Chappaqua, from 1966: Rooks commissioned Ornette to write the score, but reportedly ditched it after realizing it was so good that it would overshadow his movie. Spectacle’s presentation of Chappaqua is a remix by sonic artist C. Spencer Yeh, using Ornette’s rarely heard “Chappaqua Suite.”

Though Ornette: Made in America is hardly a straight-up biographical doc — its looping structure and three-legged-dog rhythms make it more like an Ornette composition than a conventional movie — it’s the place to go to unlock some of the most precious secrets of Ornette. This was Clarke’s final film, including footage that the offbeat documentarian had been collecting for more than twenty years. Among other things, it chronicles, in its mischievous, sidelong way, Ornette’s participation in the 1983 opening of Caravan of Dreams, a performance space in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. As part of the celebration, Ornette appeared onstage with both his regular band, Prime Time, and with the Fort Worth Symphony (at the nearby Fort Worth Convention Center), performing “Skies of America,” a challenging orchestral work of buoyancy and grandeur. When Ornette takes the stage with his alto, he peels bits off this tonally complex composition and spins them out in sprightly nursery-rhyme loops. Suddenly, a possibly difficult piece of music emerges into clarity — this is melody stripped bare, like Duchamp’s Bride.

Clarke weaves strips of the “Skies of America” footage into the bigger story of Ornette, using a child actor to re-create, in a dreamy way, his experiences growing up in Fort Worth. Mostly, that’s just little Ornette walking around, taking in the world of modest wood-framed houses around him — but then, genius always begins in the ordinary. Clarke includes 1968 footage of Ornette playing with a group of other musicians (including the late, great bassist Charlie Haden, looking impossibly young); his son, Denardo, just twelve at the time, sits regally behind the drum kit, knowing just what to add to enhance the shape and heft of his father’s loping swirls of sound. We also see the grown-up Denardo, as a permanent and longtime member of Ornette’s band. In one sequence Denardo details how his father was brutally attacked in the early 1980s, twice in the span of six months, when he was living in a former school building on the Lower East Side — Ornette was hoping to renovate the space and turn it into a performance complex for artists and musicians, a dream that never came to life.

Ornette strips the melody bare, like Duchamp’s Bride.

But then, as Made in America shows, Ornette was a man of dreams: They were practically a part of his cellular makeup, and Clarke finds whimsical ways to show that. Ornette was fascinated by the idea of space and space exploration, and he explains how he was once contacted by NASA, which at the time was toying with the idea of sending artists up in rocket ships. Ornette filled out all the paperwork — of course he did! But even if he never got to go into space, Clarke puts him there cinematically, superimposing a cut-out cartoon image of the musician onto real astronaut footage: He’s smiling and pedaling a stationary bike through the vast, star-dotted universe, the only way to fly.

Clarke captures Ornette explaining his love for architect and big-idea man Buckminster Fuller; performing (or just walking around) in amazing suits of brocade or softly shimmering satin; getting the key to the city from the mayor of Fort Worth on September 29, 1983, which had been decreed Ornette Coleman Day. The key is an ordinary little thing, a trinket sitting on a bed of plastic foam, encased in a box with a clear-plastic lid. But, the mayor says, this little key has been to the moon and back, a funny detail that’s not lost on the recipient. Later in the film, Ornette explains his theory of Harmolodics, a system that he applied to music and life. “You can’t see outside yourself, but we do have imagination,” he says. “The expression of all individual imagination is what I call Harmolodics. Each beam of imagination is their own unison, and there are as many unisons as there are stars in the sky.” Where is Ornette now? Though his body has left Earth, he must surely still be a beam of imagination, pedaling across the sky and leaving a scattering of dazzling, cometlike sound in his wake.

Ornette: Made in America
Directed by Shirley Clarke
Opens July 17, Spectacle