Dangerous Blues: Monk Does Vadim

by David Yearsley, July 5, 2017

The late 1950s were great years for black-and-white movies in France: I’m referring specifically to those with white people on screen, and black musicians invisible on the soundtrack.

The most famous of these films is Louis Malle’s 1958 Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour ‘l’échafaud), with its soundtrack by Miles Davis. After watching a rough cut while on tour in Paris, the trumpeter developed a loose collection of sparse musical ideas on a hotel room piano. For each cue, Davis would sketch out a few chords for his French bandmates. The musicians then played together while watching the scenes screened in the recording studio. It’s not a little unsettling to watch and listen as Davis’s trumpet stalks Jeanne Moreau as she strolls forlornly down the Champs-Élysées at night.

Coming the year before the watershed, million-selling Kind of Blue, the soundtrack to Elevator to the Gallows set the course for the minimalist turn in Davis’s style. The combination of melancholy and menace crying from his horn captured the onscreen mélange of composure and mayhem. Whether heard in in breathy eloquence of his Harmon mute or in the unaccessorized plaints and feints, the shape and texture of Davis’s melodies and fragments conveyed more powerfully than the action could the desperate claustrophobia of the assassin trapped in the lift as he tries to get away from the murder, or the carefree criminality of youths in a stolen car that seemed to have squealed around the corner from one of the American crime movies of the 1940s and 50s that the French New Wave directors were so besotted by.

Nicknamed Inky for the dark color of his skin, Davis was blacker than film noir: he was the coolest guy you never saw on screen.

The same can be said of Thelonius Monk and his invisible, but essential role in Roger Vadim’s Les liaisons dangereuses 1960, an updating of Choderlos de Laclos’ amoral tale of sexual dissipation in the ancien régime first published in 1782. In 2014 the studio recordings of the soundtrack, long feared lost, were rediscovered in the archive of the French jazz enthusiast and impresario, Marcel Romano, who had been the driving force in enlisting Monk to do the film’s music. A double album from the 1959 New York session, including both the tunes heard on the soundtrack as well as alternate takes and fascinating studio talk and practice have just been issued by Sam Records. Aside from the priceless audio tapes, the box stored by Romano contained color photos showing Monk in his conical Chinese hat with his beloved wife Nellie, in the control room with the producers, and at the piano with the other musicians on the date: Sam Jones on bass; Art Taylor on drums; and a pair of tenor saxophonists—stalwart Charlie Rouse and the visiting French-American saxophonist and arranger Barney Wilen, a vital presence in many jazz soundtracks of French New Wave films of those years, including Elevator to the Gallows. The two cosmopolitan tenors made for a combination unique in Monk’s recorded oeuvre.

The double CD just published goes for $25—an absolute bargain considering the importance of the discovery, the richness of the visual materials and the illuminating accompanying essays, the longest of which is by the noted Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelly. A collector’s LP album will also soon be available in the USA; it’s a sumptuous work of art that can be had for a mere 65 Euros.

The original tapes were well preserved by Romano, and the outstanding restoration allows listeners intimate access to Monk’s unique creativity as soloist, composer, and ensemble player. The fourteen-minute closing track of the second disc offers a riveting portrait of Monk at work, full of convivial patience, irreverent humor, and disarming authenticity as he teaches Taylor and Jones his tune Light Blue. This material alone makes the album a must for Monk devotees, jazz enthusiasts, and those fascinated more by music as process than as product.

A lawsuit by the French writers’ association (with future French president François Mitterand representing the movie-makers’ interests) forced the producers to add “1960” to the title, a move that dates Vadim’s movie in both senses—stamping its vintage on the marquee (and the marquis) and shackling it to its time. Yet, for all their cynicism and apparent eagerness to shock, the novel and film are sentimental affairs, odes to real affection as opposed to the gratifications of the flesh. Far from a bodice-ripping assault on the buttoned-up 1950s, the story ends up as praying at the altar of monogamy.

It’s an opportunistic message close to the heart of the erotic conquistador Vadim. The filmmaker cut a wide swath through the ranks of international female movie stars, even while his film retains a soft spot in his heart for the idea of finding one true love. By 1960 Vadim had divorced Brigitte Bardot and married Annette Stroyberg; in Les liaisons dangereuses 1960 she plays Madame Tourvel, for whom the rakish Valmont strays from the path of libertinage, compelled by love to plot an ill-fated escape from his contradictory open mariage blanc to Jeanne Moreau’s, controlling Juliette. The director was about to embark on an affair with the teenage Catherine Deneuve and father a child by her, before moving on to a union with Jane Fonda (whom he directed in Barbarella) and then to two other marriages to glamorous actresses. These adventures are at least as entangled as the boudoir machinations of the Valmonts of the 1780s and 1960s.

To carry his movie over the threshold of the swinging sixties, the swinging Vadim yearned for some of that American cool. Then at the highpoint of his form and fame, Monk was his man.

Thus in the movie’s opening party scene in which the decadent, but seemingly prim guests whisper maliciously about the notorious dallying of their hosts, the Valmonts, we are treated to Monk’s Well, You Needn’t. The tune’s angular melody queries and quips as the harmony oscillates between adjacents chords a half-step apart, before rising quickly and chromatically upward at the bridge, like surging, solipsistic gossip. Rouse and Wilen are fleet and crisp: mellifluous, but as nimble as any of the great boppers. Monk’s commentary, with its dissonant jabs and free-swinging chimes, seems casually unconcerned with the beat briskly curated by bassist Jones and drummer Taylor: the pianist calls in as from another time zone, lagging magnificently even if he’s tuned in exactly to the second hand of the prevailing global swing.

A movie lover and inveterate television watcher who’d heard Fats Waller play silent films in the Harlem of his youth, Monk watched the print of Les liaisons dangereuses that Romano had brought with him from Paris. The moving images inspired Monk: what he sent back to Vadim with Romano ran to three hours, twice as long as the film itself.

Given the expansiveness of the improvisations, the Well, You Needn’t cue had to be cut down. Thanks to the archival materials recently unearthed we can now be treated to the unabridged version, and thus compare and contrast the needs of the extemporaneous phrase and the in-the-moment urge to pursue one more additional chorus, as opposed to the imperatives of the sound and film editors’ razor blades.

Monk had been planning to make the soundtrack on a return trip to Paris in 1959 some five years after a successful trip there five years earlier. But in 1958 he had been brutalized by racist police in Delaware and lost his New York cabaret card for the second time, thus making it virtually impossible for him to earn a living in his hometown. The death of Billie Holiday in July of 1959 sent him further into depression. Erratic behavior on a swing to Boston eventually landed Monk in a mental hospital that began his long thrall to thorazine. Monk was in no shape to travel to France nor compose new music for Vadim’s film.

Monk drew therefore on his standard repertory, which nonetheless yields fascinating oppositions and confluences with the movie’s action. These are brought into still clearer, more affecting relief in the restored audio of the Sam Records production, as when, Valmont falls on his skis in front of a married women (played by Vadim’s then-wife, Stroyberg) and falls immediately and fatally in love with her to the solo strains of Monk’s lyrical and lovely Pannonica. Monk’s devout but not-uncritical ruminations on the gospel hymn “By and By” impart an admonitory message as Valmont closes in on his female prey near a snowbound church. The song turns ever-so-slightly ominous even in its apparent purity when heard again after the pursuer beds his prey. It will be the last notch on the seducer’s alligator belt.

Valmont’s hunt takes place at a ski resort near Mont Blanc, the whiteness of the landscape making for a film blanc, tonalities even farther from the color of Monk’s skin. Nothing is rarer at an upscale ski resort in the Alps, especially in 1960, than an African-American. Rarer still is jazz.

Musicians are seen on screen if fleetingly in a scene shot late by Vadim at the club Chez Miguel: Wilen appears, but also American trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and long-time American expatriate and bebop founding father, drummer Kenny Clarke. But the music we hear is, with the exception of Wilen’s tenor, not played by these onscreen musicians. They’re just hip staffage decorating the Parisian interior. The music actually belongs to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with Wilen along for the ride. (Trumpeter Lee Morgan’s opening solo on the tune Miguel’s Party is one of the great, most emphatic minor blues sermons on record, its opening chorus of half-valved shouts and shimmies perhaps an ode to—and an attempt to outdo—Davis’s elegiac Elevator improvisations so marked by cracking and caressing. The firebrand Morgan buffets these effects with ecstatic fervor.) The Blakey ensemble’s music for the film (much less a part of the soundtrack than was Monk’s contribution) was released in 1960 and has long been available. Now, thanks to Sam Records, we’ve got the movie’s main jazz course.

Monk’s music is often thought of as an eccentric exercise in irony: the seemingly detached and sardonic qualities heard by many can, in this interpretation, serve as a perfect parallel to the amoral antics on screen. Indeed, Les liaisons dangereuses 1960 could make one think at first that Monk cared as little about love as did the melodrama’s characters. But what the coupling of Vadim’s shallow film and Monk’s music shows is that the latter’s is an art of sincerity and truth very different from the posture and pretense of the movie and its maker. It seems almost impossible that these eerily optimistic, life-affirming musical creations came from a Monk plagued by racist America, and lionized in France. But even across the Atlantic and on the silver screen, Monk’s art cannot be confounded by cynicism. This much the just-released soundtrack and captivating additional materials confirm with the clarity of a jubilant and jarring Monkish chord, his fingers flat, hands extending to either end of the eighty-eight black-and-whites.

(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgyearsley@gmail.com.)

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