Out of The Shadows














Bruce Ricker, Who Made Jazz Documentaries, Is Dead at 68

Bruce Ricker, a lawyer turned filmmaker who made jazz resoundingly visible in a series of highly regarded documentaries, died on Friday in Cambridge, Mass. He was 68.  The cause was pneumonia, his wife, Kate Gill, said.

Mr. Ricker was known in particular for his first film, “The Last of the Blue Devils,” a feature-length portrait of Kansas City’s old-time jazzmen released in 1979. Shot in cinéma vérité style — he was so green a director, he later said, that he simply turned on the camera and let the men talk and play — it features luminaries like Count Basie, Big Joe Turner and Jay McShann.


That film brought about Mr. Ricker’s long professional association with a prominent jazz fan, Clint Eastwood. Mr. Eastwood first saw “The Last of the Blue Devils” while researching “Bird,” his 1988 biopic about Charlie Parker. “I thought he must have had a deep affection for the art form to have done that,” Mr. Eastwood said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “It deserved better exposure than it had received in the early days.”


Mr. Eastwood arranged to have the film more widely distributed; he was later a producer or executive producer of several documentaries Mr. Ricker made for television, including “Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends” (2007), “Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me” (2009) and “Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way” (2010).


Mr. Ricker was a music consultant for “Mystic River” (2003) and “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995), both directed by Mr. Eastwood. He produced and directed two television documentaries about Mr. Eastwood, “Clint Eastwood: Out of the Shadows” (2000) and “Eastwood After Hours: Live at Carnegie Hall” (1997).


Bruce Thomas Ricker was born on Staten Island on Oct. 10, 1942. As a student at the City College of New York, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies, he haunted New York jazz clubs, hearing the likes of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.

“He said he’d take a date out in New York City and he’d take her to hear two or three sets in a row of Thelonious Monk,” Mr. Eastwood recalled. “And by the time it was over, she didn’t want any part of him.”  Mr. Ricker would later help produce the well-received documentary “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser” (1988), directed by Charlotte Zwerin, with Mr. Eastwood as executive producer.


After earning a law degree from Brooklyn Law School, Mr. Ricker taught urban law at the University of Missouri, Kansas City; he was also briefly an assistant city prosecutor in that city.

It pained his New York soul that Kansas City bars closed at 1 a.m. Then he discovered the after-hours jam sessions at the Mutual Musicians Foundation, a historically black union hall where many aging lions, veterans of the city’s explosive jazz scene in the 1930s, still gathered to play till dawn.


Keen to preserve their words and music, Mr. Ricker began work on “The Last of the Blue Devils.” The film took its title from the Oklahoma City Blue Devils, a barnstorming band of the 1920s whose members included Basie and Lester Young.

Reviewing the documentary in The New York Times, Vincent Canby called it “a public service as well as a musical delight.”


Mr. Ricker, who lived in Cambridge and Manhattan, also ran Rhapsody Productions, which distributes his jazz films and those of other directors. Mr. Ricker’s first two marriages ended in divorce. Besides his wife (a daughter of Brendan Gill, the longtime writer for The New Yorker), his survivors include their daughter, Emma Gill; a son, Jason Ricker, from his first marriage, to Barbara Mautner; his mother, Estelle Van Pelt; three brothers, Kenneth, Carl and Robert Ricker; and two grandchildren.


His other films as a director include “Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That,” a 2005 television documentary about the Hollywood filmmaker. Part of the appeal of “The Last of the Blue Devils,” Mr. Ricker came to believe, lay in its relaxed, unstaged approach to its subjects as they came together in the union hall for music-making and reminiscence.


“If this kind of thing had been done according to the conventional wisdom, the reunion would have taken place at Radio City Music Hall, with everyone in tuxedos,” he told The New York Times in 1980. “That would have been very sterile.”



One of Bruce’s biggest fans was Clint Eastwood, who in the last fifteen years of Bruce’s life, became sort of a patron, lending his clout (and his own jazz knowledge and tastes) to Bruce’s work, enabling him to raise production funds and reach a broader audience. Bruce was able to spend less time running the video company (Bruce’s brother Ken took up the reins) and more time as a documentarian. Using Eastwood’s identity as leverage, Bruce directed the concert film Eastwood After Hours: Live at Carnegie Hall, Budd Boetticher: “A Man Can Do That” and Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends (2007, which aired on PBS’s American Masters). Bruce also contributed to Eastwood’s projects, serving as occasional music consultant (it was Bruce who suggested the smooth, sultry vocals of Johnny Hartman for the memorable soundtrack of The Bridges of Madison County[1995]).


The closest Bruce came to inserting himself into his films is when he allowed Eastwood to interact on-camera with performers in a studio setting, sharing personal anecdotes or noodling on the piano. Eastwood is Bruce’s surrogate, playing the role of the cinematic storyteller. Bruce knew Eastwood possessed a casual charm beyond that of ordinary mortals, and would’ve been a fool not to capitalize on it. And so Eastwood “became” Ricker. It’s funny when you think about it. How many people get to cast Clint Eastwood as themselves? I wonder if Eastwood himself knew what was really going on there.


What was Bruce the man like? Honestly, he was a bit of a curmudgeon (and I use that term with the greatest affection). He had a sharp wit and a sly distaste for the Hollywood system, even as he managed to find shelter within it. He was too sensible to be mesmerized by the illusory promise of fame that has compromised the principals of many a filmmaking talent. He loved to peek at the warped mechanics that governed the functioning of a major Hollywood studio, and then mumble these observations to friends over a sandwich or a drink, once he was back on his familiar stomping grounds of Manhattan or Cambridge