“Ornette: Made in America”, Shirley Clarke’s last and least-known feature is also the movie she was born to make. First released in 1985 and opening in a restored print for a week-long run at the IFC Center (and thereafter in cities across the country), Clarke’s portrait of free jazz genius Ornette Coleman is something of a revelation, a summarizing work that draws on virtually everything the pioneering independent made before.
Clarke was originally a dancer and her ‘50s short were all, to lift a phrase from Maya Deren, choreographed for the camera. Her first two features, “The Connection” (1961) and “The Cool World” (1964) both featured notable jazz scores. Her documentaries “Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World” (1963) and “Portrait of Jason” (1967) both focused on strong individual personalities. For most of the ‘70s, Clarke worked in video.
“Ornette” has its origins in a project Clarke began and abandoned in the late ‘60s—a 16mm documentary on Coleman that would focus on not just on the saxophonist’s controversial, boundary-breaking music but his highly unusual decision to fill his group’s vacant drummer spot with his 11-year-old son Denardo Coleman. The project was reignited in the early ‘80s by producer Kathelin Hoffman who had invited Coleman to compose a special piece for the opening of his home town Fort Worth’s new cultural center, Caravan of Dreams, and then got Clarke interested in documenting it.
The result is both an immersion in Coleman’s music and philosophy, and a remarkable non-linear mosaic. A triumph of editing, at once jagged and fluid, “Ornette” skitters back and forth in time, with side trips to Morocco and Nigeria, integrating Clarke’s ‘60s footage, as well as other material shot on video, with newer Super-16 and 35mm material from the ‘80s. At least half is devoted to Coleman in performance, mainly with his ensemble Prime Time, but there are also cameos by William Burroughs, Don Cherry, King Curtis, Yoko Ono, and music critic Robert Palmer, along with numerous comments by Coleman himself offered at various stages in his life.
Taking about his youth in Texas, Coleman makes reference to his decision to “pursue my career imitating music.” Truly inspired, Clarke’s movie imitates that imitation, finding an approach that is perfectly wedded to her material.