A Jazz Man's Art Preserved

Absorbing documentary focuses on late pianist Thelonious Monk. FILM: REVIEW

A PIANO is a complicated piece of equipment: a large box with keys, hammers, strings. It's kind of impersonal, really, and this is why it's so special when someone develops a truly personal style on the instrument. Yet this does happen. Take Thelonious Monk: Countless millions of people have played the piano over the years, but when he knocked out his first five or ten notes - even on a record or the radio - you knew in a flash who was at the keyboard. That's mastery. And that's class.

``Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser'' is a new documentary film about Monk, who died in 1982. He was a strange man, with mood swings that made him exuberant at some times but sadly depressed at others. One of the most amazing things about him was his ability to create great music, with surprising consistency, despite his emotional problems - as if his art allowed him to soar above difficulties that might have weighed other people down.

``Straight, No Chaser'' takes its title from one of Monk's most famous pieces. (He also wrote the classic ``'Round Midnight,'' which another jazz film was named after.) The new film is full of Monk's terrific piano playing, and it gives us unprecedented glimpses of Monk offstage, dealing with his colleagues and the challenges of his art. He behaves very strangely now and then, projecting his inner turmoil in ways that are fully visible to the camera. But he always manages to take care of business - music, that is - in his own unmistakable manner.

The movie was photographed largely by Christian Blackwood, a documentary maker who got Monk to trust him over a period of several months during the late 1960s. Also appearing, in scenes photographed more recently, are Thelonious Monk Jr. and Charlie Rouse, the controversial sax player who was Monk's most prominent colleague for many years. Documentary veteran Charlotte Zwerin directed the picture, with dedicated jazz fan Clint Eastwood serving as executive producer.

Compared with other jazz films that have come out recently, ``Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser'' is quite conventional. It doesn't have the smoky, impressionistic atmosphere of ``Let's Get Lost,'' the documentary on trumpeter Chet Baker; and of course it's not a fictionalized account like ``Bird,'' the fine Eastwood movie about Charlie Parker, jazz's all-time-great saxophonist.

Some moviegoers will prefer the orthodox style of ``Straight, No Chaser'' to the more freewheeling approaches of those films, and that's a legitimate choice. Yet there is one problem with the Monk picture: It doesn't dig deeply enough into the roots of Monk's music. He made fundamental changes in the vocabulary of jazz, after all, opening up a world of quirky melodies and harmonies. Where, deep down in his personality, did these breakthroughs come from? The film never gets around to telling us.

Flaws and all, ``Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser'' stands as an absorbing, entertaining, and often fascinating look at an artist who was as unconventional as he was brilliant. If you like music, it's a must-see. And if you like bebop, it could be the movie of the year.

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