Monday, August 17, 2020

Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser

Baroness Pannonica (Nica) de Koenigswarter

Director Charlotte Zwerin in the music studio

Thelonious Monk (left to right), with trumpeters Howard McGhee and Roy Eldridge, and Minton’s Playhouse club manager Teddy Hill, September 1947
Acclaimed photographer Art Kane’s iconic 1958 shot in Harlem, despite an early scheduled photo shoot, late-night jazz musicians showed up in pristine attire to pose for the photograph

THELONIOUS MONK:  STRAIGHT, NO CHASER        B+                  
USA  (90 mi)  1988  d:  Charlotte Zwerin

I’m famous.  Ain’t that a bitch.
—Thelonious Monk

From the co-director of the Maysles’ documentary on the Rolling Stones at Altamont, Gimme Shelter (1970), the film is a compilation of pre-existing material following the discovery of a large archive of footage in the 1980’s, including 14 hours of Thelonious Monk concert performances from Atlanta, New York, and Europe, filmed in 1967-68 by Michael and Christian Blackwood under a West German television commission for a one-hour broadcast that aired only in Germany, with the footage languishing in storage for nearly two decades afterwards, described by film producer Bruce Ricker as “the Dead Sea Scrolls of jazz.”  Bringing in Zwerin to film some additional material, she received a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, though largely financed by executive producer Clint Eastwood through his own production company.  Providing a rare window into the soul of an artist, it contains some of the only footage ever filmed of Monk both onstage and off, exhibiting his quirky personality where he was a prolific composer of 70 songs, the second-most-recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington’s one thousand, but almost pathologically introverted, fearful of sharing the sheet music with anyone, including his band, who went on tour blind, never seeing the musical arrangements ahead of time, only getting a chance to view the score on the plane flying to Europe where they hastily copied their parts.  Even during rehearsals, other musicians curiously questioned Monk what key or what notes they were expected to play, filling in their notes, where it was an incredibly difficult process to pull specific information out of him, as he was frustratingly uncommunicative, yet during performances he was in total command, playing with a previously unseen ferocity, literally attacking the keys with his fingers, often hitting the same key with multiple fingers, using percussive strikes and angular sounds, keeping his fingers flat, not rounded or bent, where it’s hard not to be impressed with how rhythmically interesting Monk’s solos are, balancing sound and space while also perfecting playing runs and arpeggios, playing with almost mathematical precision, yet defying traditional conventions of Western-European music, becoming something else altogether, claiming “Just because you’re not a drummer doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.”  Note how different the same music sounds when played by other pianists, such as Tommy Flanagan in duo with Barry Harris, making it smoother, more pleasant sounding, and easier for customers to appreciate.  No one played like Monk, who was the real deal, not meant for casual listening, viewed with reverence by other musicians who called him “the high priest of bebop,” where his music was not initially understood by the public, as he was not a commercial draw and didn’t get the recognition of other major jazz artists, refusing to play what the public wanted to hear, or in a style they were accustomed to, instead embarking on entirely new ground.  According to saxophonist Sonny Rollins who rehearsed with Monk while still in high school, “I remember guys would look at his music [charts] and say: ‘We can’t play this’, but by the end of the rehearsal everybody was playing it anyway.”  Taking what he could from all the legendary piano players that came before him, like the Harlem stride style of James P. Johnson and Alberta Simmons, both of whom lived nearby in the same San Juan Hill neighborhood (where the Lincoln Center stands today), incorporating the modern jazz twists of the great band pianists like Fats Waller, Art Tatum, or Bud Powell, and the professionalism of Duke Ellington, yet heavily influenced by the swing era growing up as a teenager in the 30’s, Monk developed a unique style all his own, refusing to sound like any of them, with oddly angled rhythms and spacing, initially viewed as weird and eccentric, not fully embraced, where it took time before his music was taken seriously, inventing atonal chordal progressions, offering something profoundly different.

Monk is an original who is largely self-taught, though he received Julliard training, where his musical education was sitting alongside Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, mentored by Coleman Hawkins along with pianist Mary Lou Williams, who collaborated and befriended the new crop of younger bebop musicians, yet Monk transcended labels, known for the complexity of his compositions and his persistent perfectionism, writing songs that musicians wanted to play, where 'Round Midnight is by far the most covered jazz song written by a jazz artist (with 1,750 versions, according to one recent count, described as the “National Anthem of Jazz”).  Today his compositions reside in a world of high art, taken seriously enough that his music is currently taught in nearly all college music departments and conservatories, recognized as part of the canon of 20th century American music.  Monk had an aversion to talking about his work, allowing the piano to speak for itself, where even the best jazz musicians of the era found his music challenging, often leaving whites in the business, like his manager Harry Colomby, or legendary recording producer Teo Macero, somewhat speechless in his presence, as respect was a given, but he was a difficult man to understand, as evidenced by a rehearsal session with Macero when Monk wanted to hear the playback, but Macero wasn’t recording, still engaged in sound checks — an example of their work together, Oska T. (Live) (Lincoln Center) - YouTube (13:19).  The performance footage identifies each and every song played, most are original compositions, but other standards are thrown into the mix, where over the course of the film viewers develop an appreciation for his style, as we’re continually treated to the best seat in the house, where we’re able to see his feet keeping tempo.  Monk had a peculiar habit of abruptly standing up and twirling around in circles, as if to his own internal rhythm, also occurring in public at crowded airports, causing confused looks, which is a peculiar sight to see.  Using a cinéma vérité style, Zwerin offers interview footage from Monk’s son, T.S. Monk (Toot), a drummer and bandleader in his own right, who reveals intimate details about his father, suggesting early signs of mental illness, as there were times that he grew aloof and distanced to such an extreme degree that he no longer recognized his son, a powerful memory that has not lost any of its impact, especially frightening to a child.  While the severity eventually led to hospitalizations, he was never officially diagnosed with any mental illness syndromes, conditions that went largely undiagnosed in black communities during that era, though his behavior certainly resembles bipolar disorders.  According to his mother, Monk’s wife Nellie, these episodes began in the 50’s, but grew more frequent in the late 60’s, with Monk disappearing from the music scene altogether by the mid 70’s when he simply stopped playing.  Nellie traveled with him on the road, known for her kindness and generosity, bringing along her juices and special remedies, taking care of him while helping him pick out what to wear, though he’s almost always seen in an oversized coat wearing an unusual hat, often resorting to sunglasses.  Like many of the musicians of the era, he was a non-stop smoker, smoking even while playing, incredibly setting the cigarette down on one of the lower keys while he continued playing.  What stands out in this footage is not only the constant presence of abundant sweat dripping off his face, but also the old, beaten-down pianos that Monk used in those dingy clubs, with dirt and scratches all over the wooden frame, hardly the highly polished prototype that musicians use today, where some classical musicians actually have their pianos travel with them on the road. 

While the intimacy with the music and the musicians is astonishing, including tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, who seemed to anticipate the same mental wavelength Monk was on, it’s important to realize that Monk was viewed as a rebel, as an outsider who broke all the rules, creating a sonic disturbance no one else has been able to duplicate, which is why his reaction to becoming world famous seemingly overnight is priceless, as it comes out of nowhere.  It doesn’t change who he is or how he views himself, but it certainly changes how others view him, finally getting the recognition he deserves.  According to Monk, “You know anybody could play a composition like Body and Soul and use far-out chords and make it sound wrong.  It’s making it sound right that’s not easy.”  The mainstreaming of Monk in the mid-50’s was part of a larger transformation of the jazz public overall, which seemed to coincide with a 6-month residency of Monk’s band in the summer of 1957 at the Five Spot Jazz Club in the Bowery neighborhood of New York, between the East and West Village, a quartet featuring John Coltrane on tenor sax, which led to an outpouring of critical acclaim, where by the end of the decade the public was embracing his strands of modernism.  A year later with Johnny Griffin replacing Coltrane on sax, Monk was the talk of the town, curiously playing before almost completely white audiences, Misterioso (Live At The Five Spot / August 7, 1958) (10:54).  By 1964, he was one of only four jazz musicians to ever grace the cover of Time magazine, followed by several overseas tours.  Certainly the most bizarre aspect of the film is the presence of the Jazz Baroness, his white patron and friend Baroness Pannonica (Nica) de Koenigswarter, the youngest Rothschild daughter, at the time the wealthiest family in the world, something of a rebellious spirit of her own, fighting for the French Resistance during the war, abandoning her husband and five children, though what may have drawn her to Monk was her own father’s erratic mood swings and eventual suicide.  Befriending many prominent jazz musicians, hosting jam sessions in her swank hotel suite and escorting them to clubs in her Bentley, often interceding on behalf of musicians facing legal problems, she was instrumental in securing the return of Monk’s cabaret card, a regulated license to perform in Manhattan nightclubs after it had been suspended for six years due to questionable drug-related charges, paving the way for his Five Spot appearance.  An aspiring young artist John Cassavetes was in New York during this cultural renaissance, meeting Charlie Mingus who scored his film Shadows (1959), while modeling a character named “the Countess” after the Baronness in Too Late Blues (1961).  However it became something of a scandal when Charlie Parker died in her hotel room in 1955, asked to leave the hotel by the management, relocating to Central Park West, where she was again asked to leave, ending up in a sumptuous estate in Weehawken, New Jersey, overrun by more than 300 cats, seen in all their glory in the film, with a view across the Hudson of the magnificent New York skyline.  It was here that Monk would spend the last six years of his life in seclusion before succumbing to a massive cerebral hemorrhage in 1982, dying prematurely at the age of 64.  His open casket funeral service was filmed for posterity, with both Nellie and the Baroness awkwardly sitting side by side, with Monk's Mood from The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings (7:53) with John Coltrane playing over the footage.  A strong-willed, free-thinking artist and a true originator, he will forever be remembered for going against the grain and asserting his own independence, where this uniquely intimate profile offers him a platform of jazz immortality, with this film selected to the Film Registry in 2017, Complete National Film Registry Listing - Library of Congress.   

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