Bruce Ricker’s Visual Jazz

The jazz community- musicians, record companies,club owners, and critics- should present an evening tribute to jazz film maker Bruce Ricker. And some of the musicians whose images he has preserved for future generations of viewers could add live visual music that night-all of them to be paid, of course.

I first was introduced to Ricker’s work through the 1979 90-minute film The Last of the Blue Devils. No book or article can come close to so deeply illuminating the around-the-clock jazz in Kansas City during its glory days and nights.

There are warm and witty memories by Count Basie, Joe Turner, Jay McShann, and other illustrious alumni as well as a jazz man who stayed there to be a mentor to kids about jazz and about life itself. And Joe Turner brings back those incandescent sessions at the Sunset Club:”Well, I been to Kansas City /Well, everything is really all right/And the boys, they’ll jump and swing,/Well, until broad daylight.”

It would take more space than I have here to cite most of the living history of jazz that Ricker has so knowledgeably documented. In January of this year, a tribute to his Rhapsody Films took place at the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge-both for the films he has made and others he carefully selects for inclusion in his video catalog of Rhapsody Films (46-2 Becket Hill Rd., Lyme CT 06371; 860-434-3610). As the Harvard Archive noted, this is “the most important collection of jazz films and videos in America.”

The films are not merely performance sets or straight biographical documentaries. Ricker, being steeped in jazz, tries, as he puts it, “for more intimate, cinema verité portraits.” That’s what he gets in his own works and in films by other directors.

Like one of my favorities, Big Ben: Ben Webster in Europe, directed by Johan van der Keuken. I knew Ben in off hours as well as on the stand, and he is there for all time-reminiscing on his years with Duke Ellington and wishing he was still there, playing the piano along with a Fats Waller record, and always being a presence. But also vulnerable. Ben, as you’ll see, was often very lonely living abroad in his last years.

Charles Mingus was a close friend of mine for many years, and you can see and hear the volatile dimensions of that protean creator in Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968, directed by Thomas Reichman. Mingus, both defiant and depressed, waiting to be evicted from his New York loft. Mingus, like Zeus hurling thunderbolts, performing at a Boston club with Dannie Richmond and Charles McPherson.

A tragedy took place in New York on February 28th of this year. Jaki Byard, a pianist whose playing encompassed the entire history, and much of the future, of his instrument, was shot to death. He was 76. One of my great pleasures was recording him years ago for Candid Records. As George Wein said, on learning of Jaki’s death: “He created joy when he played.”

In Bruce Ricker’s video collection, there is Anything for Jazz: Jaki Byard 1980. He is heard and seen as a solo pianist and with his exultant big band, the Apollo Stompers. The director was Dan Algrant, then a film student at Harvard. Ricker is also a talent scout.

Ricker co-produced Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser, directed by Charlotte Zwerin. I was privileged to spend time with Monk at his home, and he is revealed here in some of his many moods and acute perceptions at the piano and also away from it.

A recent Bruce Ricker film, directed by him, is Jim Hall: A Life in Progress. In the interest of full disclosure, I have a cameo bit in that movie, being Jim’s neighbor up the street who often gets his al fresco views on politics and the correct use of grammar.

There’s an introduction by Jim’s wife, psychoanalyst Jane Hall, who is also a writer and is as curious about all facets of being alive as Jim is.

There’s so much more on Rhapsody: Eric Dolphy, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Clint Eastwood’s Bird, the always vibrant Toshiko Akiyoshi, and Art Blakey, both with the Messengers and setting fire to a big band.

Coming attractions in this space: Rare visual jazz and blues from other sources. And I would welcome suggestions from readers about jazz videos. Please send the name of the company, address, and phone number. Have any of the BBC and European archival films become available in America?