With respect

A new film by French-Senegalese director Alain Gomis uncovers how American jazz giant, Thelonious Monk, was disrespected by French media at the end of his European tour in 1969.

Still from REWIND & PLAY © 2023.

There is a long history of European fascination with African-derived artistic practices and artifacts. But such fascination is not always evident and is often hidden in plain sight. The film, Rewind & Play, the season finale of the 2023 edition of the documentary series AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange, offers what American writer Saidiya Hartman calls “scenes of subjection” that operate at an ordinary level even for extraordinary people. It presents “offcut” footage of the late master composer and musician Thelonius Monk in the television studio, playing solo, and being interviewed by Henri Renaud, a French jazz music journalist and record executive. Recently aired at the Edinburgh Film Festival, French-Senegalese director Alain Gomis showcases the musician and interviewer Renaud’s attempt to “groom” a reluctant Monk to perform details of his personal and musical life for French television; in the process evoking the violence Fred Moten spoke of, “its benign, but excruciating tenor.” Hartman also reminds us that we do well to cast our glance at the more mundane displays of power, and the border where it is difficult to discern domination from recreation.

Around 1969, Thelonius Monk, by then a veteran instigator of the bebop revolution, had made just his umpteenth album, Underground, famous for its cover depicting Monk as a French resistance fighter. At the time, his health was also deteriorating and his energy levels were low. Monk was in a French television studio as part of a tour of France, being interviewed by Renaud. While Monk’s fans will revel in the cinematic treat of archival solo piano material, the film is not exactly pure enjoyment. It draws our attention to uncomfortable moments that were erased in the original television program. In his 2010 biography of Monk, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Robin Kelley conveys a positive impression of the original television screening of “Jazz Portrait: Thelonious Monk,” which was broadcast in 1970: “At one point, in the middle of one of Renaud’s commentaries, the camera catches Thelonious smiling. He may not have understood most of Renaud’s French, but he knew he was being treated with respect.”

Drawing on archival offcuts that did not make it into that program, Gomis begs to differ. In part, the “archival” nature of the footage that Gomis employs here is what makes us sit up. Between several takes and songs, including “Crepuscule with Nellie,” Renaud tries to pin Monk down to details that seemingly might appeal to his French audience, possibly as a way to confirm something about Monk’s eccentricities that may fascinate them. In the cut, the resulting dance of interviewer and subject makes for uncomfortable viewing as the interviewer pursues a seemingly morbid fascination with eccentricities about Monk’s life or music for his own sake or the television public, posing questions such as: “Thelonius, tell us why the grand piano is in your kitchen, next to a gas stove and a fridge.” “Thelonius, tell us about your first visit to France.” Ad nauseum. Through his actions, he seems to prompt a subdued Monk to perform his background story, his transcendence of black impoverishment, to show his natural resilience. Thelonius is both the center of attention and largely incidental, almost absent as a subject.

Its title sequence bears an inscription in small print: “It’s not nice?” It is a question Monk asks in response to his honest outburst at the inhospitality of his French hosts when he visited a few years prior. But, Renaud rebuffs him. This question echoes throughout the film. It is an inadequate response to silencing, a placeholder. Monk may only speak within a prescribed range, and he echoes the host’s dismissal. Things reach a low point when Monk draws attention to the disrespect he experienced in an earlier tour. Responding to a question about previous dates in Paris in 1954, Monk refers to this poor treatment at the hands of his erstwhile hosts. This refers to the 1954 Paris Jazz Festival when Monk shared the stage with Gerry Mulligan among others. Much was made of the poor response from the festival audience. So, when Monk does offer his answer, Renaud dismisses it, instead turning to the TV team and instructing them to “scrap that” since it is “too rude.” The condescension is breathtaking and Gomis’s film achieves its impact by mimesis of this gesture. What lies on the proverbial cutting floor is both musically breathtaking and embarrassing at the same time.

In the film, when he is not playing at the piano, Monk seems bemused, patiently bearing the afternoon’s proceedings.  Renaud appears friendly and familiar with Monk, claiming to have spent time with him in New York City. His body language sometimes feels like over-familiarity; an almost pathological probing interviewer comes up against Monk’s famous reticence. I wondered about its likeness to “slipping into blackness” as Hartman might say, as he leans casually into Monk at the piano seeking to produce meaning from Monk’s hip, eccentric blackness and all that it may signify to a French television audience or its producers. Renaud seems free to invade Monk’s personal space, and there is a telling moment when Monk resists Renaud’s attempt to place his hands on his elbows in a silent battle of wills. Beyond the tidbits of personal story, there is an almost narcissistic desire to valorize Monk’s visits to France, to canonize his emergence there.

The fascination of a broader French public with black geniuses such as Monk has its long and complex history, tied as it is to the legacies of colonial France. Veteran jazz critics such as Ted Goia have recalled the art primitivism in the early encounters between French intellectuals and jazz in the earlier 20th century. More recently Fred Moten calls such fascinations a disguised form of violence, reminding us that through its colonial engagement with the black world, the West has long been “a conscious and premeditated receptacle of black magic;” so that rather than describe routine or conventional scenes of colonial atrocity, we might look to scenes where violence can hardly be discerned, for example, perpetrated under the rubric of paternalism, property, and pleasure.

Finally, the historian Robin Kelley writes that, for his part, Monk had a fondness for things French—from his high-school French class to his beret-wearing days at the club Mintons in New York. This film picks up a quotidian part of that underbelly, an archival trace that echoes in the present.

Further Reading

Addis Swing

The revival of Ethiopian jazz, a tradition that dates back to the 1920s, and had its heyday under Emperor Haile Selassie.

Let Robeson Sing

Manic Street Preachers pay homage to the greatest American of the first half of the twentieth century, Paul Robeson. The music video by Nigerian Andrew Dosunmu is a tribute too.