Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser

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 secureThelo­nious 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.

via Metafil­ter


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  • DjM says:

    a very insight­ful doc­u­men­tary which prob­a­bly gives us the most inti­mate view in to Monk’s per­son­al life that we will ever get. I would love to see this doc­u­men­tary made 4 years ear­li­er and based around the pro­gres­sions of his quar­tet — which I imag­ine Monk took some­what more seri­ous­ly.

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