Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1989): Charlotte Zwerin Documentary of the Life of Genius Bebop Pianist and Composer

Celebrating Juneteenth:

Directed by Charlotte Zwerin, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, is an interesting documentary about the life of genius bebop pianist and composer Monk, based on old and new archived footage of Monk, found in the 1980s.

It features live performances by Monk and his group, and posthumous interviews with friends and family.

The film, made by Clint Eastwood’s production company, Malpaso, was distributed by Warner with Eastwood as exec-producer.

After meeting on the streets of New York, director and cinematographer Christian Blackwood mentioned to film producer Bruce Ricker that he and his brother have done some work on jazz, referring to a one-hour film special on Thelonious Monk that only aired once in Germany.

Ricker saw the footage–calling them “the Dead Sea Scrolls of jazz”–and suggested they use it as the center of a new documentary. Ricker brought in Charlotte Zwerin as producer, who joined the others.

While they originally planned to interview Monk, he was not well enough.  His failing health led to his death of a stroke on February 17, 1982.

Blackwood filmed the funeral, while Zwerin and Ricker negotiated with the Monk estate. Monk’s death brought up complications, however, as the absence of will, and the fact that New York did not recognize common law marriages, led to lengthy process before Monk’s children could become the executors.

The right to Monk’s life story was bought by “two young men, with money but no experience, which delayed production.  Zwerin and Ricker struggled to get funding but only raised enough money for one-hour TV program with limited post-distribution.

Ricker eventually contacted Clint Eastwood, a jazz lover and expert, and he had production, Malpaso, make the film. Old footage was used, along with the footage from the Blackwood brothers’ work. New footage was also shot, based on interviews with his son, Thelonious Monk III, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, and family and friends of Monk.

Critical Status:

In 2017, the film was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”