An impressionistic portrait of the free jazz giant
Ornette Coleman celebrated his 85th birthday this year, and this enjoyable, impressionistic 1984 documentary also includes a landmark occasion. The film opens in the musician’s hometown of Fort Worth, Texas and the declaration of that day (September 29, 1983) as “Ornette Coleman Day”, and with him being presented by a local dignitary with the keys to the city in the shape of a tie clip. “But you’re not wearing a tie.”
The easefulness with which Coleman confronts such occasions, indeed deals with everything, is the tacit subject of this reissued film. Though notionally rooted in Fort Worth, where Coleman is playing an orchestra date with his band, the film travels far and wide musically, geographically and philosophically, incorporating surprising digressions into the thinking of Buckminster Fuller, meetings with Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, and topics as far removed as castration, education and space travel.
Some bits work better than others (there’s an unnecessary dramatized motif of the young Ornette wandering about looking likely to change the jazz landscape). Still, the mingling of the 1980s footage, complete with scrolling pixel subtitles, and earlier archive material (OC playing in a camp on a civil rights march, or under canvas with Moroccan tribesmen, or in rehearsal) is strangely satisfying.
Maybe as interesting as the playing, are several informal conversations. Whether he’s reminiscing with old friends about how Fort Worth saxophonist King Curtis was already “making heavy money” in New York by the time Coleman arrived there, or chatting to journalist/musician Bob Palmer or his own son Denardo, what emerges is a great warmth and openness to new things.
Denardo is an especially important figure here. It’s one thing to see him playing drums with his dad in the hectic but strangely groovy freebop that was Coleman’s 1983 mode. More surprising is to see him in rehearsal with his dad and bassist Charlie Haden in 1968, aged 10. It’s not an issue – simply a question of Coleman recognizing his son’s talent and embracing his potential.
There are some boggling moments to this open-mindedness. So keen to explore fidelity was he that Coleman approached a physician with a view to his castration. No less interesting was his 1970s purchase of a former school on the Lower East Side where he hoped to develop a creative workshop and performance space. It was a rough area and Coleman was robbed, tied to a chair and beaten in his property. “He crawled across the floor to the phone to call me,” Denardo recalls evenly. During another similar assault in the building, he sustained a punctured lung.
Still, he’ll try anything. Perhaps it’s the case that in spite of his unassuming manner (he speaks softly and with a lisp), Coleman’s belief in his talent is such he knows he can bring something powerful to any musical situation. Whatever, it’s also been the recipe for an extraordinary life.
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