Straight, No Chaser

From the July-August 2011 issue of News & Letters:

Straight, No Chaser

Warner Brothers presents Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser directed by Charlotte Zwerin. Produced by Charlotte Zwerin and Bruce Ricker. Executive Producer Clint Eastwood.

Art is the eternal particular, the unmediated, mediating term in which the human face is recognized. A familiar tune, like a familiar face, catches us unawares and we smile in recognition. We find ourselves whistling.

To approach art in the spirit of the absolute, second negative, to criticize seriously, is dangerous but, for the revolutionary, necessary.

A classic film about a pioneering Black musician who redefined jazz performance and composition, who left us with hummable tunes like “‘Round Midnight,” raises questions about the searing racism that burns through American life. Why did Thelonious hide behind the clown-child, wafting up from the piano, to spin like a dervish…or was he hiding? Even the spike-bearded clown, like the fool in King Lear, uttered prophesies and criticism, and was cut down in the storm.

When, in the film, Teo Macero produces a date at Columbia Records, the Black quartet and its leader are approached by the white straw boss with a recital of supercilious unfelt greetings.

“What’s that?…a new hat?…only a half hour late?…let me see the glasses…you’re jiving me…(looking at Monk’s manuscripts): little sketches right?…put some free form things in there.” Here Teo Macero accosts the piano in a dissonant way he thinks is very hip. He must sell records for Columbia. Monk and his men must lay bare their hearts, in the charging, halting, impulsive and reflecting idiom they are creating.

The tune is called “Ugly Beauty”; the musicians only want the first or second take, after that the spirit dissipates as you imitate your own performance. In the middle of an inspired first take the musicians are stopped by Macero. They are non-plussed. “Why did you stop us for?” and Monk, sadly, asks, “Why nobody do what I ask ‘em to?”

Why? Because the Black commodity must be strained through the sieve of ignorant critics, eager to show how hip they are, omnivorous disc jockeys devouring the precious kernels of the Black art, and of course the market moguls.

From minstrel show to extravagant review, to dance bands crisscrossing the West and South, to small night clubs, the art of a people emerged: Monk reflected, synthesized, playing old fashioned stride with his left hand, modern arabesques with his right, questioning his heritage as he transformed a tawdry tune from the Tin Pan Alley packinghouse.

This documentary film must be seen. Charlotte Zwerin had offered up complete performances and touching vignettes from the life and death of the master artist. The fact that a poor Black man from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, challenged the world of Harlem, mainstream America and Europe in clown disguise: (“Mr. Monk, you always wear different hats. Do they have any influence on your music?” asks a West German journalist) is implicitly an attack on a world where Black Americans are not taken seriously.

In The Philosophy of Modern Music and Dialectic of Enlightenment Theodor Adorno syllogizes prematurely. He hasn’t bathed himself in the mediating center of the syllogism; he sees only the dead commodity and not the living person. Black American music for him is part of the waste land of mass culture.

See and hear “Straight, No Chaser,” but with revolutionary eyes and ears.

–Paul Geist

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