Cinematography by Edward Lachman
Editing by Shirley Clarke
Original music by Ornette Coleman
Featuring Ornette Coleman, William S. Burroughs, Don Cherry, Jayne Cortez, Brion Bysin, Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman
USA, 1985, restored 35mm, color, 86 min
Ornette Coleman, the innovative jazz composer/musician, was born in Ft. Worth, Texas in 1930. Although he started out playing with R&B combos of the late 40s, his real love was jazz. Plastic sax in hand, he left his hometown in 1949 and set out to shake up the jazz world, already reeling from be-bop. Landing in Los Angeles, he began laying the groundwork for the “free jazz movement” which would come to fruition in the 1960s as he found like-minded musicians ready to explore the outer reaches of innovation. Although Ornette composed nearly all his music, rather than loosening up jazz standards, he “played what he heard.” Some critics said he was tone deaf or insane; others, such as Leonard Bernstein and composer Virgil Thomson recognized his genius. 1958 saw the release of his first album, Something Else!!!! The next year he signed a multi-album contract with Atlantic Records, a label which welcomed jazz in all its complexity. The Shape of Jazz To Come (1959) dramatically announced the birth of avant-garde jazz, which would have few sales but lots of influence. The next year brought the release of Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation. Throughout that decade Coleman released 23 albums which furthered his sound-explorations. In 1969 he was recognized as a major artist when he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. Only in 2007 did he receive a Grammy, this one for lifetime achievement.
Equally innovative filmmaker Shirley Clarke started filming Ornette Coleman in the 1960s and off & on thereafter. She had started out in avant-garde dance, but thanks to a psychiatrist in the 1950s, she gave up choreography and moved into making films. She became a strong force within the New York avant-garde film community, which evolved into the “New American Cinema.” After a number of experimental shorts, she released THE CONNECTION (1961), based on a play of the same name, about jazz musicians waiting for a fix in a rundown apartment. ROBERT FROST, A LOVER’S QUARREL WITH THE WORLD (1963) won Clarke an Academy Award, but she wasn’t going to start playing it safe with the established film industry. THE COOL WORLD (1964) looked at a Black street gang in Harlem. PORTRAIT OF JASON (1967) was an astounding exploration of the world and viewpoints of a gay black man. The 60s was Clarke’s decade of creativity, but thereafter she was pretty much out of sight. She experimented with the use of video in live performance in the 1970s and early 80s, and taught film at UCLA (1975-1985). In 1983 she decided to combine her earlier footage of Ornette Coleman with some newer footage and complete an experimental feature doc about the jazz musician who had grown in stature in the intervening years. One description says that ORNETTE: MADE IN AMERICA “emulates his free form style by mixing together excerpts from performances, interviews, experimental music videos and reenactments of Coleman's childhood.” Interspersed are interviews with William S. Burroughts, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Palmer, Don Cherry, and Ornette’s son (and drummer) Denardo Coleman.
Ornette Coleman was still blowing his horn as recently as 2008 at the age of 78, but Shirley Clarke died from a stroke in 1997, which ended years of grappling with Alzheimer’s. ORNETTE: MADE IN AMERICA was Clarke’s final film.
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