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Thelonious Monk - Straight No Chaser (1989)

This exemplary documentary about seminal jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk reaps the benefits of multiple blessings, including the skilled editorial hand of director Charlotte Zwerin and the patronage of executive producer (and erstwhile jazz pianist) Clint Eastwood. Most vital is the use of extensive 1968 footage, shot by Michael and Christian Blackwood, documenting the sometimes moody, sometimes puckish Monk in the studio, on tour, and off stage, which on its own would make this essential jazz viewing. In post-World War II America, few cultural upheavals matched bebop for sheer exhilaration. Spawned by jazz musicians whose paydays typically came with larger swing ensembles, bop was as much bastard as stepchild, refining the technical ambitions of its parent while breaking free of swing's formalism to play fast and loose with harmony, melody, and tempo. That mercurial spirit made heroes of high-flying, technically flamboyant players like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell. Monk, by contrast, was as distinctive for his silences, crafting often skeletal melodies distinguished by unexpected, skewed harmonies. At one point dubbed the "high priest of bebop," he was more Zen archer, threading notes, warping chord structure, or stabbing "wrong" keys with a seeming looseness that in hindsight sounds as precise as haiku. Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser provides an intelligent portrait of this often reclusive, sometimes difficult artist, including telling glimpses of his volatility. A stormy studio session with Teo Macero, then Columbia Records' preeminent jazz producer, speaks volumes about Monk's very private approach to his muse. Perceptive interviews and glimpses of Monk's sunnier moments provide added depth, yet the real triumph is the generous catalog of classic Monk songs captured on camera.


Jazz on a Summer's Day (1959)

Part concert documentary, part pop-cultural time capsule, Bert Stern's Jazz on a Summer's Day chronicles the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival with an approach as deceptively relaxed, even impulsive, as the music itself. Still photographer Stern sidesteps more formal documentary conventions such as narrative voiceovers to wander purposefully from festival stage to boarding-house jam sessions, taking in the parallel color and motion of the America's Cup preparations when he isn't capturing rich color footage of the performances and the celebratory mood of the concertgoers. In the process, he documents American jazz at a notably golden moment in its development--diverse, adventurous, and still broadly popular, this was jazz not yet under the shadow of rock and youth culture, played by an integrated artistic community a few short years away from social and political turmoil that would boil divisively to the surface during the '60s. To say Stern was rolling film in a jazz Camelot is overstatement, but only slightly so. Stern's circular approach and wonderful eye achieve a breezy languor at the expense of more comprehensive coverage of the festival's bumper crop of strong jazz, blues, and gospel musicians. Perhaps inevitably, the camera lingers on Louis Armstrong, Anita O'Day, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, and George Shearing. Avid fans of later styles may be frustrated by the fleeting glimpses of other musicians such as Eric Dolphy and Art Farmer, or the honor roll of classic jazz stylists whose Newport sets weren't included in the film, but such omissions seem forgivable, if not necessary, to Stern's serendipitous design. --Sam Sutherland


Monterey Jazz Festival: 40 Legendary Years (1986)


Piano Legends (1986)