"A Lady sings the Jazz... All hail Shirley Clarke..."

By Robin Margolis.


Shirley Clarke emerged as a filmmaker in a period she likened to Impressionism in painting. She and her fellow New York artists not only sought to test and expand the limits of film as a medium, but also to explore film’s interaction with the other arts. Like Maya Deren before her, Clarke began as a dancer. She first honed her craft through dance-films like Moment in Love. She retained a choreographer’s eye for both the movements of the people she filmed and the motion of the camera itself.


                                                      “The Connection” 1962.

Out of all the arts, it is jazz as a theme that launched and sustained her career. Her first feature, The Connection, adapted the “jazz play” of Jack Gelber. The film was kept in the public eye after being banned by the popularity of its soundtrack, which featured the group of musicians that acted in the film including hard bop saxophonist Jackie McLean. The Cool World boasts a fantastic score by Mal Waldron and Dizzy Gillespie. Her final feature film, Ornette: Made In America, drew on many years of footage of the master of free jazz.

“Ornette: Made In America” 1985.

But her engagement with jazz went beyond a fascination with the art form and its practitioners as a subject. Jazz as a tradition of improvisation and performance provided her an alternative site of inquiry into how art can approach the world. As her description of her approach to editing 3-minute reels for the Brussels World Fair suggests, from an early stage jazz served as a crucial model for her artistic process as a filmmaker.


                       “The Cool World” 1964.

‘‘They had told us that the one subject we couldn’t do was jazz. So I made them all jazzy. It became a game that Penny [D.A. Pennebaker] and I played both in the shooting and the editing.” —Shirley Clarke on her films for 1958 Brussels World Fair, from AfterImage

Jazz arose as a necessarily political tradition. As a manifestation of black self-expression and genius in a white supremacist society, it inherently challenged the role black people, Body & Soul, were supposed to play. Jazz musicians were barred at the onset from an escape into a realm of mere formal experimentation.

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Jazz, from big bands to combos, developed from a complicated web of relationships: between melody and harmony, between individual musicians and the band, between the band and the audience, between the instruments and the acoustics of the space, especially in the early days, between the band and the dancers. Or to put it simply—jazz calls out its own context. Jazz plays with the tension between each song as it already exists and the song as it is created in the moment. The audience becomes part of the performance because, while a certain amount of the circumstances can be controlled beforehand, each element of the concert uniquely impacts the resulting music.

‘‘[Movies] are predominantly visual, rhythmic experiences.” —Shirley Clarke, from Points of Resistance


Clarke seeks a similar model in her work, telling film critic Noel Burch in the 1970 film Rome is Burning “I have gotten to the point that I believe that the filmmaker, the audience, and the film must all be part of something together and that I don’t want them separated behind the screen anymore.”

“Dance as it existed on the stage had to be destroyed in order to have a good film and not just rather a poor document.” —Shirley Clarke from Points of Resistance

From her very first film, Dance in the Sun, Clarke takes a stance toward performance that refuses the orthodoxies of fiction and documentary filmmaking alike. She pre-empts the debates over truth and authenticity that still surround media to this day. Dance in the Sun eschews reverence to the dance piece that serves as its source material. She translates the film into a dance with the perception of the viewer and a love song of a filmmaker to the possibilities of her new found medium.


                                                  “Dance in the Sun.” 1953

The film leaps back and forth between what appears to be a dance rehearsal in a bare studio with an accompanist to the dancer performing on a sunny beach, paralleling the leaps and falls of the dance itself. The technical marvel of juxtaposition appears dream-like during the dance. Yet she anchors the dream in a foregrounding of performance as performance with the dancer and piano player discussing the score and taking a smoke break. As the final credits roll, the piano player reworks part of the music under the review of the dancer.

The setting of the rehearsal lends greater strength to the magic of cutting to the beach, while the incorporation of the magic into the mundane reminds the viewer we are watching a film. Minus the beach, the film would read as a documentary, even with the shots switching between different angles. Clarke’s technical experimentation exposes realism as yet another conceit constructed in the editing room.

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And while she has yet to introduce jazz formally into her work, she already demonstrates a jazz musician’s instinct that even an adaptation of another’s work requires infusing it with your own worldview. Just as every inserted note, or improvised flourish reminds the audience we are watching a musician’s interpretation of the material, Clarke’s technical innovations remind us that we are viewing the dance through her lens.

“In the studio, I was always free flowing. I wanted things to really happen. I wanted things to be spontaneous because I knew, from my past experience, what one could do with a raw tape.” —Teo Macero on recording Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, from Artists House Music

While Clarke’s work transposed aspects of an already well-established live jazz tradition, she was also an early adopter of a more nascent tradition. She embraced as a meaningful parallel the practice of the studio as an instrument for extending jazz improvisation into the recording and editing period. In A Moment in Love and Bridges-Go-Round, Clarke collaborated with one of the most important producers in jazz history: Teo Macero.

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Teo Macero and Miles Davis, outside Columbia Records.

Teo Macero started as a saxophonist with Charles Mingus, but made his biggest impact as a pioneering record producer for some of the greatest masterpiece of jazz. He worked with Miles Davis for nearly all of his Columbia albums including Kind of Blue, Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain. But it’s Macero’s collaboration with Davis in creating the sound of his controversial “electric” period on albums like Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way that provides the model of improvisation most translatable to film.

Well before Macero released an album length statement of the power of the studio as an instrument for jazz improvisation, his score for Bridges-Go-Round demonstrates the same French musique concrète and Jamaican dub tendencies on a smaller scale. As Clarke puts it “[h]is whole thing is taking one note and playing with it electronically. All those voices are just one sound that has been filtered electronically and mixed with jazz.”

Macero’s technique, as fully realized later in collaboration with Miles Davis, relies on an incredibly open and improvised use of the recording time to best create the circumstances for spontaneity. It encourages players to, as Clarke would later describe her shooting process for The Connection, “react emotionally…to what was happening.” Most visionary is that Miles & Macero extended the improvisatory process through to the end of the editing process.

Musical elements, sometime as small as an 8-bar phrase, are pulled from different sessions then transformed through processing and assemblage. The final product is built by Miles & Macero out of tape in the editing room (echoes here of French composer Varese, a known inspiration to the pair). As a result players often couldn’t recognize their own parts on the final albums. Miles & Macero continued as band leader/composers past the recording process, reminiscent of Professor Nancy Richardson’s, a former student of Clarke, description of Clarke’s process of “continu[ing] to ‘direct’ film well into post-production.” (UCLA Today)


Clarke persistently pushed the technical limits of production in her pursuit of the final product. She forced engineers to differently process the double exposure of Bridges-Go-Round. She shifted scenes in Portrait of Jason out of focus in the film lab. Once she began working with video she experimented with a wealth of post-production devices, which continued on all the way to Ornette. In Macero, she found a guiding spirit who understood perfectly the impulse that “[d]ance as it existed on the stage had to be destroyed in order to have a good film,” as he approached jazz production the same way.

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                                          “Bridges-Go-Round.” 1958.

We sat at the kitchen table in my little house on E. 87th St., and we would write down screen directions like “pan slowly up to eyes then pull back.” I mean, endless camera directions, all of which were being paced out in a room all of 10 feet. But when we got on the set, it was not possible to make a single shot the way it was written. That was wonderful me because I had to improvise and react emotionally to the actors and what was happening.“ —Shirley Clarke on preparing for The Connection, from AfterImage

In the three films she is most known for—The Connection, The Cool World, and Portrait of Jason— improvisation occupies an increasingly large role until, in Portrait of Jason, improvisation becomes the entire process.

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                               “Jackie McLean.” (Milestone Pictures.)

The Connection as a play staged by the Living Theatre already relied on actors improvising large parts of the performance. Actors panhandled in the audience during intermission. The pacing of sequences changed from night to night. At one performance, as the composer and actor Freddie Redd recently recounted to NPR, “there was a real uniformed policeman…[s]o we thought we were being busted…Jackie McLean had gotten the policeman on beat to come up and stand there.”

When Clarke turned to translating the experience of the play into a film, she transposed the actors engagement with the audience to the actors engaging two cameramen made characters in the film. She builds a narrative of the act of filming into the film itself. Not only do the characters in front of the camera engage the characters supposedly filming from behind, pulling them on screen, the shots themselves often pan quickly between subjects and call attention to the camera person’s roving eye. By casting the film crew as characters, the audience becomes aware of the improvisational choices made with each shot. This is further complicated by the fact that the film is a piece of fiction that purports to be documentary until the end credits.

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                     Carl Lee as “Cowboy.” (Milestone Pictures.)

As Clarke describes in the quote above, all of the films shots were improvised to respond to the demands of the set. The set was created as the complete replica of a run down apartment. Jack Gelber, who she originally elaborately planned each shot with, could only observe from scaffolding above the stage. This gave Clarke an audience and required her to improvise as an organic response to the circumstances of production.

The Cool World necessitated improvisation to fit a very different set of circumstances. Clarke aimed for an American response to Italian neo-realism, capturing the lived experience of Harlem and its youth gangs. The exterior scenes were shot documentary style and comprised the first feature shot about Harlem filmed on location in Harlem.

A neorealist approach requires a great deal of improvisation, emphasizing shooting in public locations with predominantly untrained actors. A white Jewish female director with an integrated crew shooting in Harlem with a cast of black youth currently in gangs did not prove an exception. Several times the entire crew had to run from Harlem locals haranguing them for representing the community in a bad light.

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                  A then very young,  Rony Clanton in “The Cool World.”

Clarke wrote the adapted script (The cool World) with Carl Lee, who played the black drug dealer Rabbit in “The Connection” and whom she was dating at the time. Lee found the cast, bringing them down to audition. Early on, Clarke realized that she would have trouble getting them to memorize the lines from the script, so she relied on setting the action of a scene and letting the actors improvise their dialogue in response to her choreography of their parts and the camera motion. Clarke later said she knew the script was good when much of what she and Lee had written showed up organically in the improvisations.

“Everything I’ve done is based on the duality of fantasy and reality.” —Shirley Clarke, from AfterImage

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In the previous two films, Clarke created conditions for both the actors and the camerawork to emerge from improvisation, allowing for a naturalistic form of performance. The naturalism gave a greater sense of reality to the fictional narratives she adapted. She also shot and edited them in a way that called attention to the act of filming, reminding the audience they were watching an interpretation of reality.

With Portrait of Jason, Clarke elevated the tension between performer and camera to the center of the film. Her plan essentially consisted of only three things: that she would shoot the entire film over twelve straight hours, that she would communicate with her camera-person through only two hand signals (zoom in and switch into or out of focus), and that Lee would ask a harsher line of questions before the night ended.

Jason Holliday agreed to take the stage for the film to perform the role of himself and share the stories of his life as black queer man. While Jason counts as nonfiction in contrast to the fiction of the other two, it interrogates the fiction of the everyday to an even greater degree. Jason, as many of his tales illustrate, has mastered the performance of identity required to survive a society hostile to nearly every aspect of his existence.


“Portrait of Jason.”

The longer the film goes on, the more suspicious the truth of his experience becomes—exposing less Jason as a liar, more performance of identity as a form of fiction. The audience in the room and Clarke herself interject their comments and questions, echoing the dynamic of a crowd’s response to a jazz musician soloing on a theme. In this case Jason solos on Jason Holliday, a name and character he quite literally composed through the legal changing of his name.

And toward the end of the film, when Carl Lee challenges Jason as a liar and a fraud, Jason reminds everyone just who is control of the performance.

Jason bursts into tears at the accusation. He protests pathetically that he loves Carl more than anyone. And then, reaching the end of a long twelve hours in the spotlight and a great deal of weed and alcohol, Jason drops the tears. His face coolly composed, he looks right into the camera with deadly clarity and asks “Is this what you want?”

Clarke reaches an apex of improvisation in film-making with Jason. It represents an extreme whose lessons she carries forward, but never again replicates to the same scale. The improvisation embedded into the film mirrors the improvisation of identity on which the performance of every day life operates. The powers inherent in relationship between filmmaker, audience, and actors are laid bare and examined in harsh light. The performer and audience are subsumed into one performance, destroying the clear delineation between artists and viewer. In doing so, she has successfully transposed the participatory tradition of jazz into her film-making.



Cynthia Lee, Archive rekindles interest in once-marginalized filmmaker

Lauren Rabinowitz, ‘Choreography of Cinema: An Interview with Shirley Clarke’, in Afterimage December 1983, pp.8-11,

Lauren Rabinowitz, Points of Resistance: Women Power and Politics in the New York Avant-garde Cinema1943-71 (Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991).

Noël Burch ‘Rome is Burning: A Portrait of Shirley Clarke’ (1970)

Teo Macero on Creating “Bitches Brew” With Miles Davis,

Milestone pictures


Dance in The Sun (1953)
In Paris Parks (1954)
Bullfight (1955)
A Moment in Love (1957)
Brussels Loops (1958)
Bridges Go Round (1959)
Skyscraper (1959)
A Scary Time (1960)
The Connection (1960)
The Cool World (1963)
Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel With the World (1964)
Portrait of Jason (1967)
Four Journeys into Mystic Time (1980)
Savage Love (1981)
Tongues (1982)
Ornette: Made in America (1985).

Robin Margolis is a contributing writer for by such and such.