[JPL] Bruce Ricker, champion of KC jazz and film, dies at 68
drjazz at drjazz.com
Mon May 16 23:20:03 EDT 2011
Posted on Mon, May. 16, 2011
Bruce Ricker, champion of KC jazz and film, dies at 68
By STEVE PAUL
The Kansas City Star
Some of the details remain hazy, but it was 1975 in a small midtown
supper club where a crowd of serious jazz people gathered to celebrate
Bruce Ricker, an attorney turned local activist and filmmaker, had been
spending time here with a graying generation of musicians, recording
their memories, stories and music from the heyday of Kansas City jazz.
And now he and his fellow filmmakers, John Arnoldy and Eric Menn, were
showing a sprawling rough cut of the film. I think we sat for three and
a half or four hours, watching the likes of Big Joe Turner, Count Basie
and Ernie Williams banter about the joyous and jumping vibe of one of
our city's greatest exports.
The projector broke down a few times, and there was a lot of wandering
around the club and chattering as the film ran its course.
It took Ricker, a native New Yorker, another four or five years to raise
the money and finish his film, cutting about 30 hours of footage down to
a svelte 90 minutes. By then he was back in New York. But when we
ultimately got the pared-down version of "The Last of the Blue Devils,"
most of us came to appreciate the enormous achievement of Ricker's labor
Ricker died Friday, at 68, after a long bout with pneumonia. He lived in
Cambridge, Mass., with his wife, Kate Gill, and daughter Emma. In the
years since 1980, when "Last of the Blue Devils" premiered in London,
Kansas City and New York, Ricker remained a passionate champion of jazz
He operated a jazz-on-video distribution business, Rhapsody Films,
making movies and repackaging many rare and collectible recordings.
He partnered with documentarian Charlotte Zwerin on a film about
Thelonious Monk, and attracted the involvement of Clint Eastwood on that
and subsequent movies. Ricker partnered with Eastwood on a film about
Dave Brubeck and segments of a PBS series on the blues, presented by
Martin Scorsese, including "Piano Blues." Most recently, Ricker made a
documentary on Tony Bennett for PBS' American Masters series, which
aired in 2007.
Ricker had come to Kansas City in 1970 to work on a graduate law degree
at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and wound up in practice for
a while with onetime U.S. Attorney F. Russell Millin.
As a lawyer, Ricker was executor of the estate of the writer and critic
Seymour Krim. Ricker was partial to a range of music, to Beat poets and
to occasional countercultural high jinks. (He once participated in a
Kansas City film project called "Linda Lovelace for President.")
I once turned him on to a friend's jazz-oriented novel, and Ricker put
together a deal to option it for Hollywood. (Oh, well; a film never
But, for Kansas Citians, "The Last of the Blue Devils" was his most
significant contribution. Framed around a gathering of musicians at the
historic Mutual Musicians Foundation, the movie helps preserve the
vitality and significance of this city's jazz scene of the 1920s, '30s
and '40s. It was loose and lively, respectful and eminently
down-to-earth. As one writer put it at the time, the film "was a long,
boozy party of undistilled joy."
"I enjoy the Altmanesque feel of the movie," Ricker told The Star in
1980 (citing another filmmaker from Kansas City, Robert Altman), "the
not knowing just where it is going to go next. Some people feel the film
should have Walter Cronkite narrating it or something, but I felt the
emotional content was more important than stating any specific facts. We
deliberately worked toward a lot of emotional scenes."
In 1988, as Eastwood was making his own fictional homage to Charlie
Parker, the film called "Bird," he came across Ricker's "The Last of the
Blue Devils" and backed a re-release of the film, which led to a hugely
successful opening in Paris.
"It may be just my opinion but as far as I'm concerned," Eastwood wrote
in Le Monde at the time, "Americans don't have any original art except
for Western movies and jazz."
Over the years "The Last of the Blue Devils" was shown in Europe,
spreading what by then was the poignant history of Kansas City jazz.
"When the film first came out in 1980, Basie and Turner were still
around," Ricker told The Star at the time. "But when you see it today on
the big screen and realize that they've all passed away, it seems to
affect people more strongly."
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Oak Park, MI 48237
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