Shirley Clarke: Portrait Of Jason, The Cool World

Detail from Lobby Card for The Cool World that’s too big for my scanner.

From Portrait Of Jason (1967)

The Cool World (1964)

Last night we went to an opening at the Steven Kasher Gallery of photographs (and some artwork) from Max’s Kansas City. The show was to celebrate the book Max’s Kansas City: Art, Glamour, Rock’n’Roll by Steven Kasher (with some excellent commentary by Danny Fields among others). One photo that caught my eye was of Jason Holiday standing in front of Max’s.
That photo (not in the book) wass labeled as “unidentified” (oddly enough a photo of him in the backroom which made it into the book is correctly labeled), which is a shame, as he is the star of one of the most fascinating documents of the era and the Max’s scene- Shirley Clarke’s fascinating documentary– Portrait Of Jason (1967). Jason was a hustler, junkie and a character, who also often worked for rich ladies (including a stint as Carmen McCrea’s houseboy in San Fransisco) as an assistant/butler/maid/go-fer. Clarke simply sat him down in the Chelsea Hotel and in one twelve hour long night, fueled by an ample supply of reefer and booze and had him tell his life story, which he did. Boy did he. Born Aaron Paine in Newark, N.J., his father was a street slick nicknamed Brother Tough and his mother was from “a good Negro family”. By the time he was twelve it was obvious to all around him that he was a flaming queen, and as such incurred much wrath from his macho father. “I knew every whore, pimp and bulldagger in the town. And they all said ‘You’re queer’!” he relates to the camera. Jason had many scams, in addition to hustling, and working for rich old ladies (one of whom he admits drugging every afternoon so he could go out and cop while she dozed), he spent time in many jails and mental institutions, and was receiving an SSI gold check (crazy money as we used to call it) from the government to supplement his hustles.
But Jason, who was known in the backroom at Max’s for performing at “showtime” longed to put together a cabaret act, which I don’t think even came to fruitation. But as he gets higher and drunker, and more revealing, Portrait Of Jason gives the viewer a glimpse into a world few have ever reported on (although for those interested John Rechy’s City Of The Night (Grove Press, 1963) would be the place to start). I have no idea what became of Jason Holiday, but Clarke’s cinema verite portrait opens a window on a world long gone, the pre-Midnight Cowboy black hustler underground. In my post on Billy Wright last year I touched on the tent show queen tradition in rhythm and blues and rock’n’roll and how it crystallized in the music of Little Richard, Portrait Of Jason is another side of the same coin, and a must see for freak loving people watchers everywhere.
While we’re on the subject of filmmaker Shirley Clarke, she also made another one of my all time favorite movies The Cool World a look at youth gone wild in 1964 Harlem and Coney Island, this pre-Civil Rights riots look at inner city black America is priceless, like a Chester Himes novel come to life.
Both Portrait Of Jason and The Cool World are available on DVD, I got my copies at the Museum Of Modern Art giftshop, although I’m not sure where you can find them out of New York City. Netflix has neither, but a Google search should turn up copies for those interested.
Shirley Clarke who passed away in 1997 is a sadly overlooked film maker these days, and she would go on to make an excellent documentary about Ornette Coleman– Made In America (1985) among other films. I wish someone would do a retrospective of her work, it’s long overdue.

12 thoughts on “Shirley Clarke: Portrait Of Jason, The Cool World”

  1. There's a picture of Jason in there?! Well, maybe they'll correct it in future editions and now at least with this post more people will see him. One of the greatest documentaries ever.

  2. Hound – nice to see props for Shirley Clarke, a film artist deserving of wider exposure. “The Cool World” is ever on my personal top ten, and nets bonus points for the Mal Waldron score (which was disappointingly re-recorded for LP release). The curious are directed to where a set of her short films can be viewed

  3. Really nice post. Also worth checking out is her film “The Connection,” based on a play by Jack Gelbar about junkies in an apartment waiting to score, but with a documentary-like realism that makes it really edgy and energetic. It's around — I saw it at a museum film series.

  4. ” Also worth checking out is her film “The Connection”Starring the great jazz alto sax player Jackie McClean who also did the soundtrack. You can tell by his performance he had lived every minute of it.

  5. Dizzy and his band, including Mal Waldron, played Waldron's compositions in the Cool World movie. The “Soundtrack” album attributed to Dizzy Gillespie, was released later; re-recordings, with a different band (no Mal Waldron). Significantly different. I also recall some non-soundtrack songs – a raucuos Hal Singer track maybe?

  6. And as long as we're talking 1960s druggie indie films with great jazz soundtracks, check out Ornette's terrific “Chappaqua Suite” for Conrad Rooks' bizarre “Chappaqua,” a trippy film about undergoing withdrawal. Bizarrely, Rooks didn't use it — replaced it with Ravi Shankar. But CBS England released it on LP. I think it's out on CD now.


Spit it out, partner...

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