“I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later.”
Fans of modem jazz owe the subject of this month’s review a huge debt. There aren’t a whole lot of fine film biographies of jazz musicians available on the market, but Charlotte Zwerin’s Theolonious Monk: Straight No Chaser (1988) must certainly be counted in that select company. Produced by Clint Eastwood at the same time as he was working on his own film based on the life of Charlie Parker (Bird), Straight No Chaser proves that less is more. Zwerin’s documentary is conventional, with on/offstage footage, and interviews with family members, friends, managers and fellow musicians. What makes the whole thing work so well is the fact that the words we hear are chosen with such care, and the music is superb. Straight, no chaser. See the man. Hear him play.
Look for the ghosts. There were a few around. In utter contrast to the precision of Thelonious Monk’s piano is the awesome wreckage of his voice. Guttural. Rasping. At times unintelligible. It is as if his mind were too absorbed by the music in his skull to surrender adequate attention to anything as pedestrian as verbal communication. One might not read too much into that voice if the ghosts weren’t so obvious. Monk’s conscious hold on reality underwent periodic disintegrations throughout the course of his life. His son, Thelonious Monk Jr., describes how his father would spin through cycles of euphoria and depression a couple of times a year, year in and year out. Even as a young man, the ghosts were already there. Pretty scary having a father who’s not always guaranteed to know who you are. Thelonious Monk Jr.: “I don’t know if he would have made the strides he did if there had not been a Nellie [Monk’s wife] there for him to cover the other bases and have it all wrapped up in love….She understood as a teenager what it would take to allow this [music] to grow.” Starting in the mid-50’s and on through the 60’s the attacks were serious enough to lead to hospitalization.
Time and again the camera catches Monk turning about in circles on a stage, in an airport, at rehearsal—like a large, shambling, caged lion at the zoo pacing out a trail in a dreamed or recollected jungle. Whatever it was that Monk saw when his eyes looked inward, it eventually silenced his music. In 1972, a full ten years before his death of a cerebral hemorrhage, he stopped playing. He said he just didn’t feel like doing it any more.
Of course the story doesn’t end with silence. Monk’s music generated its own unstoppable momentum. According to Bob Blumenthal’s review of Monk’s recordings in the first Rolling Stone Record Guide (1979): “…his iconoclastic approach to complex harmony, space, rhythmic irregularity, melodic angularity and thematically centered improvisation created a thoroughly personal musical universe that inspired all of the most daring post- Parker musicians.” Gee, I wish I could have said that. I think I first began listening to jazz because I liked the titles of the songs. Some favorites included in Straight No Chaser: Blue Monk, Well You Needn’t, Ugly Beauty, Tinkle Tinkle, ‘Round Midnight, Misterioso, Crepuscule With Nellie, Epistrophy, Boo Boo’s Birthday.
Like the generic name “bebop” itself, the breezy titles belie the sophistication of the music. It challenged the best talents of its generation, in revolt against the perceived strictures of Swing in the Big Band Era. Monk was a graduate from both the school of his peers on the club circuit, and the Julliard School of Music. Bebop musicians performed without safety nets; always pushing limits, improvising, recording on the 1st or 2nd take (“You mess up, that’s your problem. You have to hear that all the rest of your life.”) In what must have been a typical instance, the film captures Monk’s octet anxiously pouring over the new score he’s just given them on a plane flying them to a major concert in London later that same day.
Most of this footage was shot by Christian Blackwood in the late 60’s. One sees Monk performing solo, with quartets (Charlie Rouse, Larry Gates, Ben Riley), with octets (the former three, plus Phil Woods, Johnny Griffin, Ray Copeland, Jimmy Cleveland), with John Coltrane and Herbie Mann. Not to mention the hats.
Some final personal observations on the jazz scene as witnessed in the film. An oddly black & white world. White managers. White music producers. Black musicians. White jazz clubs. Black nightclubs. White fans. And for Monk, a white patron~Nica de Koenigswarter, the raven-haired, cigarette-holder toting Baroness & ex-World War II Lancaster bomber pilot who gives Monk a temporary home in a Weehawken house filled with dozens of cats and a concert grand with a view on Hudson River.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
I have no idea how I wound up reviewing this documentary. I love music, but my understanding of its architecture and dynamics is nil. I look at a musical score with the same incomprehension (mixed with admiration) as I look at a page of differential calculus. So I’m not the best guy to take on one of the undisputed geniuses of modern jazz. I’m not going to be able to explain why, with a relatively modest 70 pieces to his credit, Thelonious Monk has become jazz’s second most-recorded composer. I’m not going to be able make the kinds of connections to other musicians and their work I might be able to pull off if this were a documentary about, say, Muddy Waters or Woody Guthrie.
No regrets, though. However I may have come across Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, I’m happy it came up on my radar. I seem to have done some research for the original review that I’ve since lost track of. Watching the copy of the film I recently rented through YouTube, a few things struck me this time around. As you’ll see below, I know put much more stress on the music and less on Thelonious Monk’s state of mind. Oddly, I’d forgotten (and never mentioned in the original review) that most of the film was shot in black & white, beautifully in synch with the subject matter. Then there’s the sheer quantity and quality of the music. It’s centerstage throughout. No shortchanging the music to squeeze in a lot of talking heads and analytical disquisitions. Along with Monk at his piano and with his bands, there are also a couple of virtuoso piano duets by Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris that I won’t be forgetting any time soon.
Another thing that impressed me on this viewing was how intimate this portrait is. There’s no standard dramatic arc here—the artist as tragic hero, the artist as rebel, the artist as monster, the artist as abused visionary, etc. It’s just Thelonious Monk with his piano, his suits, his trademark hats, his terse & often mumbled speech, and his unique and never-explained habit of interrupting his own performances with little spinning dances as if he’d been called out to another plane of existence entirely (at one point in the film, Monk himself says, “Somebody else do that, they put him in a straight jacket”). He’s his own little world, opening musically into infinity. When he lost his cabaret card, and couldn’t play in public for six years, his music was all he needed to fill the time. He seemed to bring out a protective, mothering instinct in those around him-his wife Nellie, his patron Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, and the musicians he performed with. What someone said of Nellie applies to everyone around Monk: “She understood what it would take to allow this to grow.” Although Thelonious Monk stopped playing in the six years prior to his death in1982 (“I just don’t feel like playing any more”), until that time this film shows us clearly how much his delight in the music that flowed through his soul and his fingers.
Kudos to Clint Eastwood for stepping up as Executive Producer for Theolonious Monk. Mr. Eastwood is a fine musician himself, with a deep and abiding passion for jazz.