Introduction to Alain Gomis’s film on Thelonius Monk

I was invited by Walker Art Center to introduce French-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis’s 2022 film Rewind & Play: “It Is Not Nice.” The following is the talk that I gave on Friday, January 20th, 2023:

First, I would like to acknowledge the welcome presence of an artist who is visiting us from out east. Fine people, meet Adger Cowans. If you don’t know, Mr. Cowans is a multi-disciplinary artist, known mostly for his work as a professional photographer (including of the jazz and Hollywood scenes, beginning in the 1960s). The Black Arts Movement stalwart works in the tradition of his mentor Gordon Parks. Last night a bunch of us closed an exhibit of pieces from Adger’s archive at University of Minnesota. Again, Adger Cowans.

Last time he visited Minneapolis we celebrated Adger’s 86th birthday. When Adger told us a story about meeting Thelonius Monk. After high school he visited NYC with some homeboys from Ohio. Thelonius Monk was in residence at a club downtown where the audiences were mostly white. Adger remembered: You could go backstage in those days; it was as if the musicians were happy to see Black people in the audience. So they went back to see Monk who, noticing their approach, guessed You must be the kids from Ohio before he sat them down next to the piano for a private concert. Then Monk went and played for the downtown audience. For me, this image of Monk debunked myths I still carry about the post-bop world as a sporting life of crazy alienated artistic geniuses. Adger offered, instead, a sort of backstage to that “official” history. 

In French-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis’s Rewind & Play: “It Is Not Nice,” we get a compilation (or, found footage) film where raw materials of a television show from 1969 are found and rendered to produce new meanings. It is evidence of the manner in which history is often selectively curated for specific interests. 

I spoke today with a friend in France, a white producer of a record label that I’m on who related that the “This film is the subject of a huge controversy here.” The controversy seems to be that older white French musicians and the apparatus of writers, promoters, producers, etc., feel that Henri Renaud, a man who you are getting ready to meet, is treated unfairly in Gomis’s rendering. 

In his biography Thelonius Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, scholar Robin D.G. Kelley notes the following about the version originally edited for French television:

The half-hour Jazz Portrait: Thelonius Monk offered a rare glimpse of Monk sitting comfortably before a nine-foot Steinway, performing a variety of solo piano pieces between conversations with, and commentary by,Renaud. The setting is relaxed and Thelonius plays beautifully […] At one point, in the middle of one of Renaud’s commentaries, the camera catches Thelonius smiling. He may not have understood most of Renaud’s French, but he knew he was being treated with respect. (408)

That’s the official version. In what follows, you’ll likely notice one moment in particular where Monk contests history, closing one firm declaration with another: “That’s what happened.” 

And then silence. 

In his story “The Silence of Thelonious Monk” (1999)*, John Edgar Wideman writes: “Silence one of Monk’s languages, everything he says laced with it. Silence a thick brogue anybody hears when Monk speaks the other tongues he’s mastered. It marks Monk as being from somewhere other than wherever he happens to be, his offbeat accent, the odd way he puts something different in what we expect him to say An extra something not supposed to be there, or an empty space where something usually is.”

A poem by Douglas Kearney gives a better sense of the world of relations the might help us better know Monk’s silence:

That Loud-Assed Colored Silence: Modernism**

who among us has not

entertained a silence

standing there loud-assed

and colored beside the white


So much has depended on white lovers, friends and accomplices. But we see in this and other films that, for Monk, so much more depends on the love of his wife Nellie. 

For some, 1969, where we find Monk in this film, is a Black world at the end of modernism. A renegotiation of 300+ years of relating to white people who have had various interests in us. The filmmaker would seem to know this. There is also, of course, the perennial business of being entertained. Which Douglas Kearney’s poem knows. But how to know Monk? How to know the high priest of jazz? Is he crazy? Eccentric? Has he been smokin that loud?! In 1964, an admirer Lewis Lapham defended Monk as “an honest man in a not-so-honest-world” before falling back into an old myth that Monk was simply “an emotional and intuitive man, possessing a child’s vision of the world” (Lapham qtd in Kelley 357). Which might make bebop, the artform that he helped birth, merely a play-thing. When some might say that to be bop is to be in conscious relation to language: the zen of scat, hip blossoms arising out of this shit world. Perhaps like swing is in relation to a noisy time and space. Auto-mechanically indicating the other. A-rhythm-ining that gives shape to silence.

Which is to say, silence isn’t nothing, and brother Alain Gomis seems to know it by his film. 

“You know what’s the loudest noise in the world, man? The loudest noise in the world is silence,” said Monk to Lewis Lapham in 1964.

Later that year, according to one of our Black newspapers, Minneapolis Spokesman, Monk was presented by the Walker Art Center in the old Tyrone Guthrie theater on Sunday, June 14th, 1964. 8:30pm. Ticket prices to the Guthrie show ranged between $4 and $1.50. Monk would play his final concert 12 years later on June 30, 1976 at Carnegie Hall. When he died on February 17th, 1982, his impact on modern music and culture was nearly forgotten. 

I’ll close with another quote from John Edgar Wideman’s  “The Silence of Thelonious Monk.” At one point, Wideman’s narrator dreams-up some words for Monk to speak: “Who said I retreated to silence? Retreat hell. I was attacking in another direction.” Regardez!

* in Callaloo, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Summer, 1999), pp. 550-557

**From Buck Studies (Fence Books, 2016)

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