Ornette Coleman film back in circulation thanks to Shirley Clarke project

Q&A with Ornette: Made in America producer Kathelin Gray

Two by Shirley Clarke: The Connection (1961) and Ornette: Made in America (1985) in newly restored 35mm prints from Milestone Films and UCLA Film & Television Archive. Screening at Pacific Cinémathèque Oct. 27-29 and 31, 2012. For more information visit thecinematheque.ca.

Kathelin Gray, currently working on the Research Vessel Heraclitus off the coast of Spain as part of an ongoing Mediterranean research project, talked to the North Shore News about her involvement as producer in the making of Ornette: Made in America.

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North Shore News: How did the Caravan of Dreams get started in Fort Worth, Texas?

Kathelin Gray: Caravan of Dreams was conceived by a small group of people as kind of a multifunctional art centre to help with revitalization of the downtown of Fort Worth, Texas. A major problem in the U.S. in many of the old cities was that the city core had become essentially dead and people stopped living downtown. Caravan of Dreams was conceived as the revitalization of the city core so we began construction and renovation of this old building in Fort Worth in about 1981.

At that time no one was living downtown and at the same time Texas, especially in Dallas and Fort Worth, was home to some very interesting art forms. Free jazz had emanated from that area and blues was very important. People like Ornette Coleman, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Red Garland, all who became important in the jazz movement were raised in that area.

When Caravan of Dreams opened in September of 1983 it was one of the first, if not the first, fully integrated public cultural institution in that area because the Old South where there was racial segregation had maintained cultural segregation. When Caravan of Dreams opened the city fathers werent confident that racial integration could be achieved at that time in the inner-city but the opening of the centre did successfully integrate culturally, racially, etc.

North Shore News: Ornette Coleman seems like the perfect figure to be associated with the Caravan of Dreams project.

Kathelin Gray: The choice of Fort Worth, Texas came before the realization that Ornette was from Fort Worth but when my old friend John Rockwell, who was a music critic at the New York Times for many years, pointed out that Ornette was from Fort Worth then it became kind of a climactic idea to have Ornette open the Caravan. He represented the full spectrum, from his early days playing rhythm and blues all the way through to free jazz and his experimentation with classical music, so yes he became a microcosm of the potentiality of a cutting edge artist being born in tough circumstances.

North Shore News: When did Shirley Clarke come into the picture?

Kathelin Gray: About 1982 when Ornette was chosen to open the Caravan of Dreams. Looking to film the opening Ornette said Shirley had started a movie in the 60s and he actually had the footage from the 60s under the bed in his building in New York. I screened some of that and then I asked Shirley if she wanted to continue her project. Her filming in the 60s had been based on the relationship between Ornette and his son Denardo because he was bringing along his young son to be a player in his musical group.

The orientation of the movie, as we saw it before Shirley became involved, was the life of a cutting edge avant-garde artist. What does it take to maintain that edge intellectually, creatively? How do you find the stamina to keep going with your vision? That had kind of been the idea of this film and when I contacted Shirley we decided to combine the two themes into the film that became Ornette: Made in America.

North Shore News: How long did Shirley spend in Fort Worth?

Kathelin Gray: She came down a bit before the filming of the opening in late August.The score for Skies of America was the script for the film and so that was the underlying focus of filming at that time. There were also the performances in the nightclub with Prime Time and the Buckminster Fuller-dedicated string quintet called Prime Design/Time Design in the dome. So she was probably there for a month.

North Shore News: Were the dramatic sequences with the Theatre of All Possibilities done at that time as well?

Kathelin Gray: Yes those sequences are based specifically on Ornettes memories of important times in his childhood and recurrent dreams he had of the circle, the square and the triangle. All of the music video shorts within the film had to do specifically with his dreams.

North Shore News: You shot in Super 16 in Fort Worth?

Kathelin Gray: The primary footage was shot in Super 16. The New York sequences at the World Trade Center and downtown in Harlem were shot in Beta. In addition to the primary filming we had archival footage comprised of practically every format that heretofore existed from 35 to weird video formats. It was an endless process to restore that footage.

Shirley lived in the Chelsea Hotel and so I moved into the Chelsea for about a year and a half. We had two of our editing centres there and one external to that. On the floor of Shirleys studio at the Chelsea I unwound the ancient video tapes that Ornette had taken on Prince Street. You see Don Cherry playing on Prince Street. And this is pure luck Ornette had also filmed his trip to Jajouka in Morocco with Bob Palmer. I was looking for a section where William Burroughs and Brion Gysin appeared, taking a Q-Tip and alcohol and separating endless reels of video tape to determine what could be salvaged. Miraculously one of the few salvageable sections of the tape was just that section of Burroughs and Gysin and Palmer in Morocco. Ornette was one of the first proponents of documenting your own work and so he latched on to some of the early Video Portapacks and such that started to revolutionize filmmaking in the late 60s and early 70s. He is someone who is always interested in the latest artistic medium and the possibilities of how technology can be used and pushed. We had almost every format and the primary footage was shot mainly by Ed Lachman with a couple of other cameramen. Ed was the DP in Fort Worth and for important sections in New York as well.

North Shore News: What was it like working with Shirley Clarke on the editing process after filming had been completed?

Kathelin Gray: She herself edited in video so we had a U-Matic deck in her living studio at the Chelsea and then we also had another video editing deck in a closet on another floor and we would go in and out of Broadway Video for the editing of some of the so-called music video segments.

Shirley loved everything that moved and she could remember what moved. I worked with her constantly throughout the editing process as a team, although obviously she was the primary editor. She was very much a dancer and was interested in the rhythm of the film and any image that was not part of a stock-in-trade of images. For example, in the talking heads segment, towards the end of the film, she wanted to enclose the heads in cartoon television in order to give that Brechtian distance so that they werent looked at as experts so much as part of this theatrical creation. The primary gut orientation of the film is the creative artist who is always looking for the new and pushing their own limits. Shirley was very much an equal of Ornettes in that respect. It wasnt that she was documenting what Ornette was doing she was participating in the creative process.

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