In 2009, jazz piano prodigy Jason Moran and a vital group of musicians put a modernized twist on Thelonious Monk’s legendary Town Hall concert, live in the same venue in New York. Director Gary Hawkins, with the assistance of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, has cut together pristine footage from that epic jazz event with, among other things, photos and mixed-media interpretations of photographer Eugene Smith’s tapes of Monk in rehearsal in an apartment known to insiders as the jazz loft. Though the music and Monks’s legacy is ever at the heart of this masterpiece of music documentary craft, to call the result a concert film is too simplistic: The individual musicians’ reactions to and analysis of Moran’s direction blend into long, detailed, unrelenting montages of the musical numbers in creation, letting the true depth of Monks’s music hammer home without impediment. And once you’ve listened to enough Monk, music never sounds the same.
In no uncertain terms, this is exactly the film jazz lovers needed to make (first because it may go a short way toward rectifying the nearly 50-year-old bad blood stirred up by another music documentary, Jazz on a Summer’s Day, that turned its only Monk solo into background noise for America’s Cup news coverage). The detail through which Hawkins, producer and co-editor Emily LaDue, and the rest of the creative team work in stories such as Monk’s origins in rural North Carolina or the nature of his voice in the context of race or slavery provides a vital document of jazz as a combined cultural heritage. With close-ups of hands at the drum kit and piano keys and devoted understanding of jazz as a spontaneous, fluid, effervescent art, the film invites comparisons to the top-tier music documentaries. It sets a new standard for jazz on film along the way. Every student of music, Monk’s or otherwise, should see this picture.
The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival runs from April 8 to 11.