November 29, 2016
Ornette Coleman’s symphony “Skies of America” was conceived in 1965, recorded in 1972, and performed intermittently in the ensuing decades. It was something of a grand introduction to Coleman’s “harmolodic” compositional method, the term a portmanteau of harmony, motion and melody, and required a full orchestra alongside Coleman’s working jazz quartet. Due to budget limitations the recording eliminated the quartet (Coleman played solo) and cut out a third of the symphony, due to the length limitations of vinyl. Coleman sought to realize the original vision of the piece over the ensuing decades. Shirley Clarke’s hyperkinetic documentary Ornette: Made in America (1985), is an attempt to track the artistic evolution of the project from the sixties into the eighties, using a performance of “Skies of America” in Coleman’s hometown of Fort Worth, Texas as the fulcrum. Available to view on FilmStruck, or on DVD and Blu-ray from Milestone Films, it eschews historical context for the immediacy of performance, making it more of a piece for fans rather than newcomers to Coleman’s work. But it is a rare peek into Coleman’s artistic process – which means it is a glimpse into the mind of one of the greatest and most influential artists of the twentieth century.
Ornette: Made in America was the last completed film by Shirley Clarke, brilliant iconoclast in her own right. She was a choreographer-turned independent filmmaker with an eye for self-destructive showmen, as seen in her narrative debut of heroin-addicted jazzmen, The Connection (1961). She is not able to dig very far under Coleman’s notoriously sphinx-like personality. Prone to speaking in aphorisms and reluctant to speak about his personal life, instead he talks about Buckminster Fuller and his desire to be castrated. A shy man who speaks with a soft-spoken lisp, Coleman radiates a calm mystery that is transfixing whenever he speaks on screen. One wishes for a long fixed camera interview with Coleman, but it’s unlikely he would have ever submitted to such a self-revealing interrogation (as Clarke was able to do with hustler Jason Holliday in Portrait of Jason ). Instead we get a mosaic approach, with Clarke editing to the tempo of the music, in rapid-fire montage that flickers from performances, Buckminster Fuller architecture, and historical re-enactments. It is an attempt to match the film’s style with Coleman’s music, which I found both instructive and irritating. In a concert inside of one of Fuller’s geodesic domes, Clarke matches the angular construction to that of the music, her edits keeping time with the composition. It works less well during interviews, when Coleman’s oracular statements, which are already hard to parse, are cut to shreds in the editing bay.
This was her intent all along, as she told the Los Angeles Times: “‘I wasn’t trying to make a ‘documentary’ of Ornette Coleman,’ said director Shirley Clarke in her room at the Chateau Marmont. ‘I hope nobody goes to this film expecting a record of Ornette’s musical life because that’s not what it is. We wanted people to come away feeling a certain way about somebody and knowing a little bit about his music and its relation to him. Ornette is not violently well known (outside the jazz world) and that had something to do with my choosing to make a film that could appeal to people who just want to see this kind of filmmaking and don’t have to know it’s about Ornette.’”
The project originated in the late sixties, when Clarke began shooting a documentary about Coleman’s decision to use his 11-year-old son Denardo as the drummer in his trio with bassist Charlie Haden. It fell apart in 1969, “when the producer disliked a partially completed version of the film. Clarke engineered her firing from the project to avoid being liable for $40,000 in expenses and the footage spent the next dozen years gathering dust under people’s beds.” In 1983 the Caravan of Dreams Performing Arts Center in Fort Worth booked Coleman’s first hometown performance in 25 years – which also happened to be his latest iteration of “Skies of America,” performed with the Fort Worth symphony (conducted by John Giordano) and his current band, Prime Time. Largely ignored by Fort Worth previously, now he was to receive a key to the city and other celebrations for a local boy done good. When producer Kathelin Hoffman suggested a documentary be made about the event, Coleman suggested that Clarke direct it.
Clarke dug up all the old film from the abandoned sixties project, and incorporated it into the new footage to create a mini-arc of Coleman’s career, at least since his working relationship with his son Denardo, who he felt had a direct connection to the music – a path uncluttered by education, rather similar to how Bresson used untrained “models” as his actors. Denardo is not pressed on how performing at such a young age affected him, though he clearly adores and cares for his father. This comes through when Denardo discusses his father’s performance space and community center in NYC’s lower east side, on Rivington St. Ornette Coleman bought an abandoned schoolhouse with a vision of turning it into a cultural center – but he kept getting mugged and eventually had his lung punctured during one horrific beating. Denardo fears for his safety as he continues to practice and create in the dangerous crack-infested locale (now one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city). The role of Denardo in Coleman’s band is a fascinating one – from the glimpses we get he is the loving, earthbound anchor to Ornette’s spiritual, ghostly presence. But we only get a brief peek behind the curtain – as the music is the thing. And “Skies of America” is an imposingly complicated construction. Orchestral waves buffet the squall of Prime Time’s improvisations, which both cut against and flow with the symphony’s tide. Before a 1997 performance of the piece, Ben Ratliff described the symphony’s origins for the New York Times:
“It was so cold,” [Coleman] said of that time in Montana. ”It must have been 2 or 3 below zero, and when I saw the American Indians praying, doing their purity ritual, they looked like their bodies were transparent. All of a sudden, I saw the American Indian and the sky as the same people. It taught me something about religion, race, wealth, poverty, commerce. I said: ‘Oh, I’m going to go over to the other side. I only want to be on the side of the consciousness that comes to people naturally.”’
What he came up with was a gargantuan metaphor: just as every person sees the sky his own way, every musician produces a note in his own voice. But the sky, and the notes, are always there, unchanging: the sky has seen war and famine; the notes have seen Gregorian chant and jazz. The intended result was that in ”Skies of America,” the thick bed of the orchestra, with its deep blend of colors in great parallel melodies, would be the sky, and the improvising soloists the Americans.
Clarke doesn’t bother trying to explicate the enormity of Ornette Coleman’s musical project, but instead lets it represent itself. Coleman is a man and a personality who lets the music speak for him, so Clarke does the same in Ornette: Made in America. She lets the symphony play, and it is up to us to listen.