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Pianist-composer Thelonious Monk, one of the certifiable geniuses of jazz, remains one of its iconic presences, bent over a keyboard in collar, suit, tie, jacket, sunglasses and most famously topped off by one or another piece of his idiosyncratic headgear. In a time when jazz musicians favored berets - the 1940s through the 1960s -- his trademark lids usually ran to skullcaps, sometimes tasseled, often embroidered. But the lids he placed on his head seemed the only ones in the vicinity of the piano, the lids of which seemed to lift off, propelled not just by his digital dexterity and often percussive touch, but by the feeling that while Monk's music-making was spontaneous, it had in it something pent up for a long time, spilling and cascading from his depths.
Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988) could easily have seemed a patchwork cobbled together from disparate pieces. It beats the odds, though, turning into a pungent time capsule that not only offers insights into the legendarily non-verbal Monk (1917-1982), but into his process and his era besides. It began in 1967 and 1968 when documentarians Michael and Christian Blackmore, commissioned by West German television, followed Monk around for six months, filming him in grainy black and white, in a number of contexts, in fly-on-the-wall style. That footage, shelved for years, is at the heart of this 1988 film directed by Charlotte Zwerin. Shining like unearthed treasure, punctuated by posthumously recorded talking heads of those close to Monk, it's the big reason Zwerin's assemblage (produced with the aid of jazz aficionados Clint Eastwood and Bruce Ricker) seems both humane and, in the end, exhilarating in ways no conventionally structured documentary, tethered to a narrative through line, could have been.
The great thing about the Blackmore brothers' footage is that they were able to just hang around long enough so that Monk eventually began to lower his guard. Occasionally there are moments when he's aware of the camera, but mostly he ignores it, which means that the most introverted of pianist-composers makes himself available to be captured in affecting and compelling ways. Thus, we see Monk noodling at a Columbia recording session, then expressing disappointment that the take wasn't recorded (they thought it was just a warm-up). Later, saxophonist Charlie Rouse, a longtime Monk collaborator, says Monk almost always went with the first take, sometimes a second, almost never a third. We see Monk fret on the eve of a European tour that turned out to be a big success, run up against the language barrier when trying to order chicken livers and eggs from a room-service waiter in Copenhagen, return people's greetings on a Manhattan street in the West 60s, not far from where he grew up, and, on occasion, simply stare into the camera with his huge vulnerable eyes.
The film also pays him the respect due his professionalism and master craftsmanship, even when he was several steps ahead of his sidemen. Because so much of the footage retains its shot-on-the-run quality, leaving for a later time that never came the task of sorting it and editing it, there's never a sense of an interpreter interposing himself between Monk and us, especially in the footage of Monk unwinding after concerts. Fittingly, given Monk's taciturn nature, there isn't a lot of talk, although Monk's patience and gentleness come through when he politely answers in a soft voice a barrage of stupid questions from reporters while on tour. ("Are 88 keys piano keys enough for you?" "Yes.") ("Do your hats affect your playing?" "No.") But although the film gives us more of the man than any concert documentary could, it also provides generous helpings of his music, including concert performances. Also, his idiosyncrasies, such as pausing in the middle of performing, rising from the piano bench, and slowly moving in clockwise circles for a few revolutions, as if making some internal adjustment before he could continue.
By the time he was recognized as a pioneer, and an inventor of bebop, he had moved onto hard bop and other styles. Still, we're reminded that Monk didn't come out of nowhere. He grew up near where James P. Johnson, the father of stride piano, lived. Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Art Tatum were influences, too. We're also reminded of how objectively and unsentimentally he played his own compositions, especially the ones made famous by others, most notably "Round Midnight." His introverted and convoluted ideas really were ideas, too, not just embellishments. He was one of the first bop deconstructivists, altering standards, reworking rhythms. To hear him reinvent "Just a Gigolo" or "Lulu's Back in Town" is to wince at shallow criticism that dismissed him as a bad pianist. To hear the dissonances in his "Crepuscle for Nellie" (his longtime loving and supportive wife), or the crushed notes and suspended tonalities in his other compositions, is to erase any doubts about his musical sophistication or his prodigious ability to extend music itself, not just jazz.
Mercifully, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser refrains from trying to explain genius. Nor does it yield to the temptation to advance facile diagnoses when the onset of depression began to cloud Monk's musicianship and life. Nor does it make the mistake of trying to oversell him as a colorful personality. It doesn't have to. It simply stands back and allows his genuine originality and unorthodoxy to make their own impression. Zwerin's contribution consists largely of intercutting the wonderful old footage with interviews featuring Monk's family, his colleagues and his latter-day patroness, Nica de Koenigswarter, a Rothschild whose cat-filled house in Weehawken, N.J., often was a refuge for Monk.
His former manager, Harry Colomby, underscores the political dimension in Monk's music-making, pointing out that Monk was one of the first black musicians to pursue an artistic vision instead of seeking merely to please audiences, thus presaging the black independence movement. Monk's grown son recalls the terror he felt as a boy when his father would pace the floor for days until exhaustion overcame him, or later, when the elder Monk would look at his son and not recognize him. The dark passions that Monk internalized except when they erupted as art at the keyboard are not neglected. Nor is their corollary - the fact that art never comes easy. The aptly-titled Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser is one of the exceptions to the rule that film and jazz don't mix.
Producer: Bruce Ricker, Charlotte Zwerin
Director: Charlotte Zwerin
Cinematography: Christian Blackwood
Music: Dick Hyman
Cast: Jimmy Cleveland, Harry Colomby, John Coltrane, Ray Copeland, Nica De Koenigswarter, Tommy Flanagan, Larry Gales, Johnny Griffin, Barry Harris, Bob Jones.
by Jay Carr