“The loudest noise in the world is silence.”
—Thelonious Monk

In December 1969 Thelonious Monk taped a show for French television titled Jazz Portrait: Thelonious Monk, produced by Bernard Lion and Henri Renaud. When it aired three months later, viewers were treated to a lovely half-hour encounter between Monk, sitting at a Steinway grand performing unaccompanied, and Renaud, leaning on the piano rim discussing Monk’s significance and occasionally asking a question. Most of the program consisted of music—stunning renditions of “’Round Midnight,” “Crepuscule with Nellie,” “Coming on the Hudson,” “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” “Thelonious,” and “Epistrophy.” Brief clips of Monk, his wife, Nellie, and their road manager, Robert Jones, at the airport, in a cab, and in a Paris bar are scattered throughout, mostly at the beginning and end of the show. The tone is relaxed and friendly. I describe the program in my 2009 book, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. “At one point,” I wrote, “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. It was a far cry from the world of Columbia Records, impatient critics, and fans clamoring for change.”

Gomis’s film reveals how the power of editing crafted the “portrait” of Monk that white listeners imagined.

It turns out, however, that I was wrong about Monk being treated with respect. Outtakes from the taping show Renaud disputing and ultimately silencing his guest. We know this now thanks to the French-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis, who obtained the excised footage and turned it into the new 2022 documentary, Rewind & Play. Gomis, who is currently working on a feature film about Monk, reveals how Renaud and Lion used the power of editing to craft a “portrait” of the icon they imagined while silencing the man. Rewind & Play offers no biographical information, special musical insights, or talking heads. Instead it captures an encounter we were never meant to see, a secret window to the kind of fraught interactions between Black artists, their white handlers, and the critical establishment whose influence can impact a musician’s livelihood. Such erasure should surprise no one. In the world of entertainment artifice is the rule, not the exception. Show business always hides the seams and missteps, the conflicts and personality flaws—that is, until the excised material becomes a valuable commodity. Think of boxed sets and the decision to issue “complete” recordings, with outtakes, false starts, and even band chatter thrown in for voyeuristic pleasure. These materials are usually released posthumously, and often against the artist’s stated wishes. This kind of voyeurism has no place in Gomis’s film.

In creating Rewind & Play Gomis had an abundance of footage from which to work. Lion and Renaud filmed enough for at least an hour-long show, as the original Jazz Portrait was conceived as a two-part program. After airing part I, however, the producers never returned to the material. Rewind & Play is not the unfinished part II—not by a long shot. Gomis, whose 2017 feature, Félicité, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and garnered six awards from the Africa Movie Academy Awards, is too good a filmmaker to turn this material into another standard documentary. Unlike Charlotte Zwerin—whose 1988 Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser recuts two 1968 films by Michael and Christian Blackwood for German television (Monk and Monk in Europe) and turns their cinema verité approach into a conventional biographical documentary—Gomis understands that film is always representation. What gets cut, what stays, what remains in the frame are all decisions that reflect a filmmaker’s intentions and point of view. Rewind & Play is both a study of the dialectic of representation and power, racism and resistance, and a counternarrative to all of the romantic tales of the beloved, revered native genius and the colorblind, powerblind, egalitarian character of the jazz world. Gomis doesn’t just expose what Renaud and Lion buried but plumbs the same material to find and reconstruct Monk’s voice, to create a radically different “portrait” of the man and the musician.

The invitation to be featured on French television could not have come at a better time. Since 1968 Monk’s declining health and frequent hospitalizations kept him from working regularly. As his income dwindled, his debt to his label, Columbia Records, accumulated. Columbia executives pressured him to cater to the growing rock and popular music market. The result was Monk’s Blues, a disappointing big band record arranged by Oliver Nelson and infused with some rock and R&B. With bad reviews and dismal sales figures, the label prepared to drop him. His long-time bassist Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley quit at the end of 1968, leaving Monk without a steady, permanent rhythm section. The tour that brought him to Paris at the end of 1969 would be his last European outing as a leader.

Everything Renaud presents in Jazz Portrait: Thelonious Monk is respectful, flattering, and accurate. He identifies Monk as a pioneer of modern jazz and a product of the great stride pianists of the 1920s. He discusses the importance of Minton’s Playhouse, where Monk led the house band and—along with Kenny Clarke, Charlie Christian, and others—launched the bebop revolution. He explains that Monk was largely ignored in the 1940s while many of his compatriots, such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, received most of the credit and the gigs. He acknowledges that it wasn’t until the late 1950s that Monk began to achieve the recognition and income he deserved. And he briefly nods to the crucial role Nellie played in Monk’s life and work. Renaud never once calls him “eccentric,” “weird,” or “childlike”—common adjectives Monk endured his entire adult life.

The film gives Thelonious and Nellie the visibility and voice that other films and shows have stripped from them.

Yet what is striking about Jazz Portrait is how little the two men actually interact. Instead, Monk plays and Renaud lectures to the camera. Renaud poses only two questions to Monk: asking him when he wrote “’Round Midnight” and to name a song he had just played (“Crepuscule with Nellie”). Throughout the “interview” Monk utters a total of thirteen words. Rewind & Play reveals that Renaud posed many more questions, and that Monk spoke quite a bit. At one point he even spoke too much, pushing back against Renaud’s version of events and causing a rift from which neither of them could recover.

It began with an innocent question: “Do you remember your first concert in Paris in ’54?” Renaud framed events by suggesting that Monk’s music was “too avant-garde for the French audience,” to which Monk replied, “I don’t understand what you said. What are you asking me?” On first blush it appears to be a language problem, but Renaud is speaking in clear English. And even so, Monk studied French in high school and had an elementary comprehension, and Nellie spoke the language fairly well. What Monk did not understand was Renaud’s version of events. By Monk’s recollection his performance at the third Paris Jazz Festival in 1954 was well received. He was the headliner. He reminded Renaud that his picture graced the cover of the program despite the participation of luminaries such as Gerry Mulligan and Jonah Jones. “If it was too avant-garde or whatever it was, it seemed that I was the star, and the people were coming to see [me]. But I wasn’t getting the money, though.” Renaud promptly turns to Bernard Lion and says, “we can erase that.” The footage then shows a few seconds of tense conversation between Monk and Renaud without audio. When the sound returns, Monk continues to speak directly and honestly. He recounts how he was not allowed to bring his own band, and the organizers initially could not find a rhythm section capable of playing his music. “I practically had to play by myself. . . . And I was getting less money than anybody. That’s what happened.”

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Monk’s words struck a chord because Renaud was responsible for inviting him to play at the festival in the first place. The organizers, Charles Delaunay and Jacques Souplet, were his friends and they added Monk to the roster on the strength of a phone call from Renaud. More importantly, Renaud considered Monk a friend. What appears on the screen is another insensitive European know-it-all jazz aficionado interviewing yet another Black musician. Hidden are the emotional ties built over the course of sixteen years. Renaud and his wife Ny met Thelonious and Nellie in December 1953. A fine jazz pianist and composer, Renaud had come to New York to produce several recording sessions for the Vogue label. They hung out together many times and the Renauds frequented Tony’s in Brooklyn to hear Monk play. Renaud and Delaunay also recorded an LP of Monk playing solo piano during his brief stay in Paris. But most of what Monk remembered of the trip was true. He was paid less, and when he finally found two French players able to keep up with him, drummer Jean-Louis Viale and bassist Jean-Marie Ingrand, they only had time for one brief rehearsal the day of their first performance. At the same time, Renaud’s recollection of how French audiences received Monk was largely accurate. While Monk did have a following in Paris, it was quite small in 1954. Technically he was not the headliner, and the festival organizers did very little to promote him. Monk wasn’t lying; he just had a different experience.

Nevertheless, Renaud is visibly annoyed in the footage. He had imagined that reminiscing with Monk about his first trip to Paris would be the show’s centerpiece. When Monk gives an answer he wasn’t expecting, he starts to translate Monk’s version of the story, ending with, “that’s all he has to say on the subject,” but then abruptly changes his mind. He instructs Lion, in French, to erase the whole thing. “What he’s saying is really derogatory. So we mustn’t talk about it, especially since the organi—” at which point the audio momentarily cuts off again. Monk understands enough French to know that Renaud had just dismissed everything he had said. A few seconds pass and Thelonious abruptly gets up from the piano bench and walks away before Renaud coaxes him to come back. The hostility is palpable. When the sound returns, we hear Monk proposing to go to dinner “and forget this TV program.” Renaud begs him to stay and then asks him to play something. Monk refuses to sit down and, in a tone laced with disdain and amusement, continues to drive home his point:

Monk: “You asked me about the first time I came to France.”


Renaud: “No, no, no, no, no, no, that’s, no, no, it’s, we don’t use that.”


Monk: “The first time I came to France, I was ossified [ostracized] all the time I was here.


Renaud: “No, no, we don’t say anything about that anymore.”


Monk: “Aw man, everything . . . . It’s not secrets, is it?”


Renaud: “No, but it’s not nice.”


Monk: “It’s not nice?”


Renaud: “Yeah.”

Monk then lights a cigarette and Renaud tries to change the subject. But the damage is done. Thelonious becomes taciturn. Renaud continues to ask questions, pivoting to Monk’s knowledge of classical music and his experience taking piano lessons as a child. By now Monk is no longer smiling and is breathing heavily. At one point Renaud asks him to say something in French. He blurts out “Merci beaucoup” and walks away from the piano. Renaud then proceeds to deliver his version of how Monk got to Paris in 1954—how his music was “quite hard to grasp” and the audience “didn’t understand everything” Monk was playing. He then turns to the crew and makes a waving gesture with his hand, as if to indicate that there is nothing more to say.

Gomis finds Monk’s voice, his counternarrative, in the music.

Renaud tells his story of the Paris Jazz Festival in Jazz Portrait, backed with Marcel Fleiss’s photographs of Monk’s Paris performance and a personal photo of Renaud, Ny, pianist Duke Pearson, drummer Art Blakey, and Monk sitting together at a nightclub. It is clear that Monk had already left the studio when Renaud narrates his version of events. In fact, Gomis includes a wide shot of Renaud about to begin lecturing earnestly before an empty piano bench. Monk’s testimony is completely erased.

Rewind & Play does not confirm or deny Monk’s recollections, nor should it. The encounter is not about the past, it is about the moment—which Gomis never lets us leave. He wants us to feel uncomfortable. Monk speaks his truth to power, but in this case power prevails. Most of Rewind & Play is devoted to reversing the silence, giving Thelonious and Nellie the visibility and voice that other films and shows have stripped from them.

For example, Nellie appears in Jazz Portrait for about seven seconds and the only words we hear her say are “no, of course not.” This all-too-brief cameo occurs after Monk plays “Crepuscule with Nellie” and Renaud describes Nellie’s role in Monk’s life. Gomis, by contrast, pulls footage from the taxi ride where she is featured. In the beginning of the film, we see and hear Nellie chatting about their experience working with documentary filmmakers Christian and Michael Blackwood, and the quirks of airport security. The camera lingers on Nellie’s face, occasionally drawing back to catch Monk chiming in. Later in the film, Renaud asks Monk to say something about Nellie, and he replies, “She’s my wife and the mother of my kids.” He uses the opportunity to elaborate, fondly describing all she does for him and that they’ve known each other since childhood. They do a second take, which Gomis transforms into a tender homage to Nellie. As Renaud begins to talk, we hear “Crepuscule with Nellie” again and return to Nellie in the cab. He gradually mutes Renaud’s voice to foreground the music and Nellie’s face. When Renaud becomes audible again, we hear him say in French, “. . . his guardian angel. And whenever you ask Thelonious about something important, he says, ‘Talk to Nellie. I do as she tells me.’”

Above all Gomis finds Monk’s voice, his counternarrative, in the music. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, and yet it is perhaps the most underappreciated feature of the film. Reviewers have focused on the fraught interaction between the men and said very little about the music. But Monk speaks through the piano, and Gomis brings out his voice with shrewd placement of the music in dialectical tension with Renaud’s voice. Monk was like so many musicians who used music as a mode of self-expression and storytelling to resist silencing. An especially poignant example occurred when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie appeared on Earl Wilson’s television show Stage Entrance in 1952. As Wilson presents both men with awards, he addresses them with the kind of casual familiarity characteristic of minstrel shows. Every word drips with condescension. Just before they are about to take the stage, Wilson asks “You boys got anything more to say?” Parker, now seething with anger, calmly replies, “Well, Earl, they say music speaks louder than words, so we’d rather voice our opinion that way, if you don’t mind.” They then launch into a frenetic, flawless, “fuck you” rendition of Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House.”

Gomis discovered at least six more songs on the cutting room floor, powerful performances of “Monk’s Mood,” “Reflections,” a rarely performed original he called “Dreamland,” and a particularly ironic rendering of “I Should Care.” Monk voiced his opinion during the taping by choosing to play “Ugly Beauty,” his only composed waltz. Usually played by his quartet as a slow, introspective, almost melancholy tune, Monk reharmonizes the song, adding more dissonance and dynamics. It is a tour de force ringing with controlled rage. So is “Don’t Blame Me,” a favorite standard of his by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh. His performance is energetic and muscular, displaying every kind of technique imaginable. While transitioning to the next song, “Coming on the Hudson,” he ends on a very low, dissonant B-flat minor eleventh chord, which he repeats four times. Gomis samples this haunting chord and for several seconds inserts it in the middle of a completely muted passage of “Coming on the Hudson.” Monk’s fingers move in complete silence except for this tolling bell-like chord. The chord symbolizes his rage, his retort.

The movie is a study of the dialectic of representation and power, racism and resistance—a counternarrative to tales of the egalitarianism of the jazz world.

Near the end of the film, Gomis strings together several of Renaud’s monologues. Over his droning, tedious voice, Monk launches into a fierce, stride piano rendition of “Epistrophy.” The effect is cacophonous, as if they are fighting over space or shouting to be heard. In the middle of it all, Renaud recalls one night at Tony’s in Brooklyn when a melee erupted, tables were overturned, bottles sailed across the room, knives came out, and Monk and Sonny Rollins continued to play, unfazed. The way he tells it comes across as racist and voyeuristic, with “young Black people, dancing brilliantly,” amid “a fight like you see in the best American movies.” I know it happened because the late Randy Weston was also there, and he has told me the story many times. But something about Renaud’s tone doesn’t sit right.

As Monk completes the final chorus and walks away, Gomis doubles Renaud’s voice, escalating the cacophony with choice phrases, repetition, and verbosity. Renaud is left to gesture at the camera and pretend he is listening intently to his guest. There is only silence because, as it turns out, the piano bench was empty virtually the entire time. Monk had cut out long ago, giving Renaud the opportunity to tell stories and pontificate without interruption. Gomis ends the film with Monk and Nellie moving in complete silence. These last moments are emotionally overwhelming and powerful, evidence of what Monk meant by the “loudest noise in the world.”

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