In 1981, film producer Bruce Ricker had a chance encounter with director and cinematographer Christian Blackwood on the streets of New York. Ricker had just released a documentary on Kansas City jazz, called The Last of the Blue Devils, and Blackwood told him that he too had done a little work on jazz. When Ricker went to see the footage, he was stunned. The reels, he would later say, were “just sitting there like the Dead Sea Scrolls of jazz.”
The “scrolls” were an intimate look into the life and music of Thelonious Monk, the legendary bebop pianist and composer. Blackwood and his brother, Michael, had received a commission from West German public television in late 1967, and were granted unprecedented access to Monk. They followed him around New York, Atlanta and Europe for six months. The resulting cinéma vérité special aired only once, and was forgotten.
Excited by what he saw, Ricker suggested to Blackwood that they use the footage as the nucleus of a new documentary. They hoped to enlist Monk for the project, but the musician was in failing health and died early the next year. Eventually they brought Charlotte Zwerin on board as director and Clint Eastwood on as executive producer. New scenes were shot featuring interviews with musicians, friends and family, along with contemporary interpretations of Monk’s music by Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan. Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser was released in 1988 to rave reviews.
“The film’s late-60’s portions, which document a European tour and also catch Monk playing in clubs and in recording sessions, are some of the most valuable jazz sequences ever shot,” writes Stephen Holden in The New York Times. “Closeups of Monk’s hands on the keyboard reveal a technique that was unusually tense, spiky and aggressive. Other scenes show him explaining his compositions and chord structures, giving instructions in terse, barely intelligible growls that even his fellow musicians found difficult to interpret.”
Monk’s mannerisms tended to block people from appreciating the elegance and sophistication of his compositions. As Rob Van der Bliek writes in his introduction to The Thelonious Monk Reader, “Monk’s image–his on-stage pirouettes, pacing, dancing, flat-handed playing, floundering footwork, mumbling speech, nodding off or laying out, his goatee, glasses, and hats–was very much a part of his allure, although combined with an idiosyncratic piano technique it may have initially done more harm than good for his reception by the critics.”
By now, Monk’s place in the jazz pantheon is secure. Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser is a fascinating portrait of a truly original artist. The one-hour, 30-minute film is shown above, and can also be found in our collection of Free Movies Online.