Ornette Coleman was buried in Woodlawn Cemetary a little over a week ago, following a memorial service attended by Pharoah Sanders, Cecil Taylor and other fellow luminaries of avant-garde jazz. But even if his final resting place is in the Bronx, the free-jazz pioneer was very much a creature of downtown. At one point he even owned a Lower East Side school building, and you can watch him amble through it in a documentary that will be shown at Spectacle next week as part of “Something Else: A Celebration of Ornette Coleman on Film.”
From July 17 to 23, the Williamsburg micro theater will screen Shirley Clarke’s 1985 documentary Ornette: Made in America as well as Conrad Rooks’s 1966 experimental work Chappaqua. The latter, a psychedelic cult film featuring appearances by Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Ornette himself as the Peyote Eater, will be screened with Ornette’s original score, rather than the Ravi Shanker one that appeared in the finished version.
Ornette: Made in America isn’t your traditional documentary: in a non-linear fashion that mirrors Ornette’s music, it combines footage Shirley Clarke shot of the jazzman in the 1960s with footage shot in 1983, when Ornette traveled back to his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, to help launch a multi-disciplinary performance center and nightclub called the Caravan of Dreams and to perform his symphony, Skies of America, as a collaboration between his band, Prime Time, and the Fort Worth Orchestra.
Footage of that concert anchors the movie, with the live recording making for a highly atmospheric soundtrack; but we also get flashback footage of Ornette mentoring his son and his drummer Denardo at the age of 12, playing with Nigerian tribal musicians in the early 70s, revisiting his childhood bungalow next to the train tracks, and giving a neon-soaked performance at the opening of Caravan of Dreams along with the likes of William S. Burroughs (fun fact: Ornette performed on the soundtrack of David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch.)
For New Yorkers, though, the real treat will be the scene that takes us inside the school building where Ornette briefly lived in the ’80s. He bought the former home of PS 4, at 203 Rivington Street, at auction and moved into a top-floor classroom in 1982. The building was in a rough area; Denardo recalls how in September of 1982 his father was tied up and hit in the head with a hammer by six teenagers as they tried to rob him of his equipment and money. Six months later, two assailants attacked Denardo and his father while they were walking up the steps in the dark. They struck Ornette with a crowbar and punctured his lung.
Ornette was intent on turning the massive building into what he called a “multiple expression center” for arts and science. “He’s going to develop it and have maybe a music school or galleries, performances, a lot of things happening once it’s developed,” Denardo says in the film. “But until that point or until things get a little better it’s always going to be dangerous. And I worry about him a lot.”
In the production notes for Made in America, the film’s producer Kathelin Hoffman Gray remembers how she tracked down Ornette at “the dilapidated old school house in the center of the drug trade,” so she could ask him to play at the opening of Caravan of Dreams. She writes, “I left a message there with a woman who didn’t acknowledge knowing Ornette Coleman. The next day I received a call from a soft-spoken man who said he’d meet me for lunch.”
After they agreed to collaborate on the opening and document it on film, “Ornette pulled out old videotapes and 16mm film stock from underneath his bed, from his so-called closet,” Gray writes. “The 16mm film was from footage Shirley Clarke had shot in the late 1960s. It seemed to me that she was the logical person to continue her unfinished film, so I visited her at the storied Chelsea Hotel. I subsequently moved in to the Chelsea and we commenced our three-year collaboration.”
Court records show that Ornette shared the building with the Lower East Side International Community School, and at one point he attempted to evict it. His efforts were unsuccessful and he ended up selling the building at the end of 1986. It now houses rental apartments.
Clearly, Ornette was a much better musician than he was a landlord. In the late ‘60s he moved into the upstairs of a loft building at 131 Prince Street and then took over the storefront. Artists House, as he dubbed it, served as a hangout, rehearsal space, performance venue, and even a studio (Friends and Neighbors, an albeit unauthorized release, was recorded there).
As documented in John Litweiler’s Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life, it was also a crash pad for fellow musicians like his sister Truvenza Coleman and avant-garde composer-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton. But eventually, despite soundproofing efforts, noise complaints got him evicted from the first floor and he ended up moving out. Ornette told another biographer, Barry McRae, that he was pushed out because new tenants who took over the space didn’t want black residents in the building.
After that, Litweiler writes, Ornette bounced around apartments (in one case, a hotel) on and around the Bowery. One residence was across from 254 Bowery, the address where Danish guitarist-composer Pierre Dorge met Ornette for the first time (hence the title of Dorge’s song “254, Bowery”).
Clarke’s film contains some footage of the action at Artists House, but like most everything else that flashes on the screen during this impressionistic documentary, it’s very brief. There are also some stories from Ornette’s legendary stint at the Five Spot, the storied Bowery venue.
After making a name for himself in Los Angeles, Ornette moved to New York in 1959 for what was to be a two-week engagement at the Five Spot. As the gig stretched to two and a half months, Ornette’s unorthodox style drew its share of critics: Miles Davis opined that “the man is all screwed up inside”; John Snyder and Max Roach once approached Ornette after a set and punched him in the mouth.
But the West Coast newcomer also gained fans. “Coltrane used to come hear us every night,” bassist Charlie Haden told DownBeat of those Five Spot days. “He would grab Ornette by the arm as soon as we got off and they would go off into the night talking about music.”
As Litweiler notes, the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Lionel Hampton sat in. But still, there were some, like French journalist Francis Newton, who thought Ornette’s success was constrained to the misanthropes who gathered at the Five Spot to get “lost over their $1.50 beer.” Some musicians would walk off the stage when Ornette took it, and even his own bandmates sometimes turned against him. At one point, bassist Jimmy Garrison gave up in the middle of a set at the Five Spot and demanded, in front of a packed house, “Stop this goddamn music, ain’t a fucking thing happening. What do you Negroes thing you’re doing?”
It was partly that kind of criticism that caused Ornette to briefly “drop out” of the jazz scene. He was toying with the idea of moving to Europe when, in 1965, filmmaker Conrad Rooks paid him a reported five figures to soundtrack Chappaqua with Pharoah Sanders, conductor-arranger Joseph Tekula, and an 11-piece orchestra. “The recording session took three days,” writes Litweiler, “but when Rooks heard the music Ornette had created he decided against using it in the movie after all. The music was too beautiful, Rooks allegedly said; it would have distracted the audiences from the film itself.” Ravi Shanker ended up scoring the film and an unauthorized, edited version of Ornette’s soundtrack was eventually released as Chappaqua Suite.
If Ornette’s critics were strident during his days at the Five Spot and Village Vanguard, he drew even more heat when he made his 10-year-old son his drummer (Denardo had started playing at the age of six). One critic, Shelly Manne, called the resulting 1967 album, The Empty Foxhole, “unadulterated shit” and gave it a minus five.
But the footage of Denardo in Made in America, spanning from his precocious but glitchy drumming at the age of 12 to his collaboration with the Fort Worth Orchestra, shows an impressive evolution. As father and son talk shop, this much becomes clear: Ornette loved that his son’s talent was relatively unspoiled by the influence of traditionalism. Because even though Ornette didn’t play things straight, he had the old guard somewhere in him: one of the jazz critics interviewed for the film recalls him busting out a perfect impression of Charlie Parker’s blues one night at the Five Spot. Buell Neidlinger, a regular performer at the bar, told us a similar story.
Though Made in America doesn’t delve too deeply into Ornette’s musical philosophy and his theory of “harmolodics,” it does make clear that he was influenced by an early-70s trip to Nigeria, spurred by some tapes that musicologist Robert Palmer brought back to him. After listening to the Master Musicians of Jajouka, Ornette realized he had to play with them.
He said, “I could see that for once I could play whatever passed through my heart and head without ever having to worry about whether it was right or wrong.”