Albertine Diaries

Alain Gomis, in the footsteps of Thelonious Monk in the United States

Every month, France-Amérique talks to a resident at Villa Albertine, the cultural institution launched by the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, which offers an annual program of 60 artistic and cultural residencies in the United States. The June issue featured French-Senegalese director Alain Gomis, who has traveled the country in the footsteps of jazz pianist Thelonious Monk.
© Samuel Kirszenbaum

In December 1969, the American jazz legend was in Paris. Before his performance at the Salle Pleyel, Thelonious Monk arrived at the ORTF studio to record an episode of Jazz Portrait. In the rushes, the musician can be seen playing the piano as the producer Henri Renaud looks on scornfully alongside his colleagues, smoking, talking television technique, and leaning against the instrument. This footage was edited out of the final cut.

“This represents what Black musicians had to go through, with people who were disrespectful yet who also admired their work,” says Alain Gomis, who obtained the images and used them as the basis for his documentary Rewind and Play. (The film was recently presented at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto and the DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver, and will be screened at the New York Film Festival on October 8 and 10.) “This material shows us Thelonious Monk living between takes. We can also see the media machine that helped create so many stereotypes. Monk was portrayed as a misunderstood Black musician, an eccentric genius who had moved his piano into his kitchen… He explained that it was the only room big enough to put it in, but his answer was cut.”

Thelonious Monk at Minton’s Playhouse, in Harlem, 1947. © William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress

The objective of these six weeks in the United States was to move past preconceived ideas about Thelonious Monk and immerse himself in the musician’s America to write a second feature-length film inspired by his life, Sphere, “a fictional film with no chronology, like a puzzle. It’s easy to romanticize jazz. When you don’t live where they did, you only get the mythology.”

In New York, Alain Gomis met the pianist’s son and visited the building where he had lived, at 243 West 63rd Street – a block that miraculously survived when the rest of the neighborhood was demolished in the 1950s to build Lincoln Center. This part of the street has since been renamed “Thelonious Monk Circle.” He also traveled to Weehawken, New Jersey, where Thelonious Monk lived his final years in a house owned by his friend, the French-English baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter.

Naturally, Alain Gomis also visited the clubs that made an impact in the musician’s career, including Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, the Jazz Gallery, the Five Spots Café, which closed in 1967, the Village Vanguard, and the Blue Note. “This is where I understood the industry of small venues. The owners – most of whom are white – squeeze in as many people as possible, and kick them out as soon as the set is over. The musicians – most of whom are Black – go from show to show trying to earn a living, without any social safety net. The sociology of jazz has barely changed since the 1950s.”

Alain Gomis also visited Cambridge and the Harvard Film Archive, which has countless images of the pianist, and Los Angeles. “I wanted to immerse myself in the current jazz scene and meet artists such as Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, and Robert Glasper, who combine jazz, pop, and hip-hop. I was curious to see how Thelonious Monk’s music resonated today.”


Article published in the June 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.