“It’s no secret, is it?” asks Thelonious Monk.
“No, but it’s not nice.”
That was the subtitle of the documentary, Rewind & Play: Not Nice, on the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, which I saw in the early evening yesterday. It was made by the Senegalese director Alain Gomis out of raw footage he found that had been used to produce a 30-minute French film tribute to Monk in 1970. The film shows various scenes and exchanges that had been edited out of the 1970 movie, scenes that have stayed with me.
First, Monk’s music and especially his way of attacking the piano keys.
Second, his face. He wore a hat and a suit, sweating profusely. His eyes were half-shut with a bit of red at the bottom rims, and while he himself says very little (he was known to favor silence), those eyes betray different feelings as the footage progresses.
The music is brilliant; it’s the dialogue that has riled people up.
Henri Renaud, his interlocutor and a well-known French jazz pianist in his own right, had become a music company executive by the time he interviewed Monk for the 1970 documentary. He soon asks Monk about his first visit to Paris some 15 years earlier to participate in the Paris Jazz Festival in 1954, and asks if Monk thought his music was too avant-garde for the Paris audience at that time (they had been only lukewarm towards him in the 1950s).
He has to repeat the question a couple of times, including the meaning of the word avant-garde, and when Monk finally answers, he says that he had been promoted as the star of the festival but had gotten paid the least and was unable to bring his musicians with him.
Twice he says this, and twice Renaud turns to the director and tells him in French to erase the exchange.
Monk almost walks away, but Renaud cajoles him back to the piano, at which point Monk asks: “It’s no secret, is it?”
Renaud says, “No, but it’s not nice.”
“It’s not nice?” Monk repeats with a whisper of a smile.
This exchange is highlighted often by those who saw the film as another example of: racism first and foremost, how a white Frenchman talks down to a brilliant Black artist. But also, as highlighting how documentaries are “cleaned up” and edited to meet certain specifications that are paternal and condescending, unable and/or not wishing to do justice to a complex, out-of-the-box musician like Monk. While Renaud is acting as an interviewer, careful with his posture as he leans over the piano friendly-like and mouthes banalities, it’s the quiet, brilliant Monk who seems authentic and real.
At the same time, the film last night was introduced by Tom Reney, host of the local Valley station Jazz a la Mode. He presented a slightly different picture, indicating that Monk’s invite to perform in 1954 had been almost an after-thought for he wasn’t well-known outside of the US at the time. In fact, the invitation was made so late that the program list had already gone to print without his name appearing there and the French audience was very cool towards him. Given all that, Reney said, it was reasonable that he would be paid less than the other, better-known musicians.
Genius follows its own compass, located somewhere between Monk’s fingers on the piano keys and some indefinable inner soul or dimension. Thelonious Monk spoke very little, letting his music respond instead. In comparison, it’s easy to see his white French interlocutor trying to find the key to this enigmatic human being, trying to make him simpler and more coherent, more conforming to expectations, as the villain of the French, white, musical/documentary establishment. He is glib and reassuring while Monk is sweaty, somewhat puzzled, eager to get to the music and leave (he was to play his final concert in Paris that evening).
Driving home, I thought about how challenging it is to communicate across different languages (Monk spoke English—and barely that, while Renaud translated back and forth between English and French) and different cultures. A genuine connection between two human beings is hard enough; now add more barriers and you could arrive at a dead end. One is silent, listening hard, trying to understand what’s going on in French around him (he plays music while cameras and mics are moved all around him). The other has his own image of what the film should look like and asks vacuous questions that would elicit vacuous answers from almost anyone other than Monk, who knew how to answer vacuous questions like I know how to manage the James Webb Telescope.
Inside, I couldn’t muster the outrage that other reviewers expressed. If Renaud was unable to step out of his comfort zone to connect with Monk, how much do I make the effort? And when I do, how successful am I?
On Saturday, the 6-year-old daughter of Mateo and Sofia, the family that made the long trek from Honduras of whom I wrote earlier, will have a birthday party to which I was invited, and I will bring her a couple of gifts. But I won’t be speaking Spanish. Her parents barely speak English. Everyone else there will be family. I am naturally not the most social of creatures. How will I feel surrounded by a language I don’t speak, an outsider who won’t know the family stories and jokes, or any of the other guests? What will I resort to in order to make some kind of connection?