In 1969, Thelonious Monk, passing through Paris, records a television program, "Jazz Portrait". It is one of the rare pieces of archive footage where we see him play solo and be interviewed.
He is at the end of a decade of success, which was a long time coming. It has sent him touring around the world for ten years. Fatigue sets in and Thelonious gradually disappears, making increasingly rare appearances. Within five years he no longer appears at all, or barely, and he stops playing completely for the final five years of his life which he spends in virtual silence. It is on the eve of this final period in his life that the program is recorded.
Since that time, Thelonious Monk has gained recognition for his particularity, both in terms of his music and his personality. He has been described as "unique", "the high priest", and "a genius" by a media with a hankering for atypical figures.
His harmonically and rhythmically surprising music, his bizarre gestures, his famous silences, and his stays in psychiatric hospitals have all contributed to the rejection as well as the success.
He has a very personal voice in jazz, which, during his period of inactivity, has risen in consideration from a form of lively, popular music to acquire the status of great music, like a sudden affirmation. He provides a link between these two periods, a model of integrity in troubled times subject to a war of representation, for the political backdrop cannot be detached from people's perception of him. And, of course, this fight for affirmation and representation is propped up by the media.
Jazz, because of its popularity, has long been at the heart of this ambiguity. Both a recognition of Black culture and a stigmatization. Its first great figure, Louis Armstrong, is the perfect example. Respected for having stormed through the barriers of media inaccessibility, he is also considered to be an "Uncle Tom", the picture of submission. And that dialectic was set to last.
Thelonious Sphere Monk is a sort of palindrome. His musical quest and his quest for existence are one and the same, and silence is not only a refuge but a goal.
Thelonious Monk endeavours to escape all categorization. Neither minstrel nor activist. Musician. But can he really do it? How does a different representation come about? And is it not one of the driving forces behind his deepening sense of isolation which ultimately leads to silence?
These images allow us to explore this strange dialectic, this world of representations in which an artist is trying to exist while at the same time desperately seeking to escape them so that his music can be heard for what it is.
But Thelonious Sphere Monk (to use his full name) is a sort of palindrome. His musical quest and his quest for existence are one and the same, and silence is not only a refuge but a goal. He has always peppered his music, phrases, and gestures … with pauses. He is one of those artists who feel that nothing can be expressed without being merely an illustration. What really exists lies in the cracks. And his music, like his life, is a series of stops and starts between which he simply elongates the gaps until he melts into them.
Thelonious invites us to follow his example and conjure all this up in strokes, leaps, resonances, dissonances, and repetitions.