In 1969, Thelonious Monk and his wife Nellie exited a plane at Orly, where television crews were already waiting. Monk was a celebrity in the Paris of 1969, albeit one of yesteryear. In the fifties he had been a god of the Rive Gauche bop craze, which first became acquainted with this prototype of the “Black eccentric modernist genius” around 1951, when Blue Note released his first-ever collection of singles recorded in the forties (“Genius of Modern Music”). In the late fifties, Roger Vadim enlisted Monk to record music for his film LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES (1959).
Monk’s most recent album at the time of this visit was entitled “Underground”. Columbia Records, which was marketing its rock catalogue under that term, gave the album anecdotal artwork somewhere between Norman Rockwell and a classic cover of German TV listings magazine “Hörzu”, depicting Monk as an elaborately bedecked French Resistance fighter playing the piano while a shackled Nazi languishes behind him. The material, too, is not exactly fresh as a daisy—the most important composer in bebop was hardly composing anymore. Monk, who, as the TV programme we see likes to rehash in that old myth of artmaking, was “ahead of his time”, and had no part in either the free jazz movement or the new Black political radicalism of the sixties.
Delays and displacement are also themes of Alain Gomis’ 65-minutes long REWIND & PLAY, a recomposition of two hours of raw footage shot around Monk’s 1969 Paris sojourn, at the time edited into a 30-minute music programme. The footage shows Thelonious Monk performing five solo pieces, three of which he had released back in the forties, alongside one from 1958. The fifth piece is a standard, one that was also on his set lists back in the forties: “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” In Gomis’ remix, the viewer sees how Monk takes on this piece with reluctance and only at the end, after the presenter asks him to play something snazzy, apparently because the other pieces had turned out rather ballad-like and contemplative.
The presenter also tells the audience that Monk had already arrived at his style by the late thirties, after which it took time for Harlem to understand it, then the first record company, and then the second. And so it continued: a third company followed, then recognition in France, the rise culminating with Monk’s appearance on the cover of “Time” magazine in 1964—in other words, world famous. But by this time he is hardly writing, retreating into performances, tours, having to earn some money; he is said to have psychological problems. His close friend and patron, the baroness Nica de Königswarter, is quoted in a German newspaper calling Monk not just the greatest composer in jazz, but the greatest of all composers since Bartók. But the world prefers to see him as a pianist in funky hats. Not to say the hats weren’t great—Sun Ra could take a page from Monk’s book of bop chic.
Monk is weary and clearly has no desire to embody the adventurousness of his compositions in his person—his much-touted eccentricity has the character of retreat and withdrawal.
REWIND & PLAY is a film about the violence inflicted on artists by the commodified stereotypes they are forced to occupy and earn from, even when they have negotiated a relatively favourable compromise for themselves. Monk is weary and clearly has no desire to embody the adventurousness of his compositions in his person—his much-touted eccentricity instead has the character of retreat and withdrawal. He is introverted and sensitive; he baulks and bristles.
In particular, this is a film about the violence that the national or state broadcast television of old inflicted on the individual realities of the world as it attempted to solve its eternal problem: how to convey an issue, an art form, a person, an experience to an assumed EVERYONE—this EVERYONE conceivable only as a dull abstraction, not yet called audience metrics at that time, even if it was meant. The victim of this storm of normativity is not only Monk, who is to be brought down to standard measure via humanising anecdotes from his private life. Caught up, too, is presenter Henri Renaud, who can be seen in Gomis’ film re-recording lines and shots again and again; not because any particular element is wrong but simply because everything is wrong and embarrassing. Renaud, a reasonably hip French pianist who has played with the likes of Clifford Brown and Lee Konitz, earns money on the side as a presenter. He knows Monk personally yet becomes increasingly distanced, while Monk eventually has no option but to retreat into single syllables.
Ultimately, it’s also a film about the particular violence inflicted upon African-American artists, who are forced more than others to conform to stereotypes. Monk is again visibly weary when Renaud, who is affable and very likely not racist, asks Monk to complete an expected and well-trodden narrative by recounting his (former) poverty and cramped living conditions in Harlem. By comparison, one could look at the film CECIL TAYLOR À PARIS, made in 1965 by much more ambitious French jazz journalists for “Les grandes répétitions”, a series on new music that had found one jazz musician worthy of inclusion. The film shows Taylor, a generation younger than Monk and Monk’s biggest fan, confidently resisting attempts to ascribe things to him, continually giving voice to what Monk could express only through his weary and uncomprehending, rarely amused, and at times simply sad facial expressions.
Diedrich Diederichsen is a freelance writer and a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.
Übersetzung: Hilda Hoy