Bruce Ricker, Documentarian, RIP

Bruce Ricker, the producer-director of a series of documentaries about American musicians, has died. He succumbed to pneumonia on Friday, May 13, at a hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was 68. Ricker’s most recent release was last year’s Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way. Among his other films were the stories of Jim Hall, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mercer and Thelonious Monk. He also produced the 1997 TV special Eastwood After Hours: Live at Carnegie Hall.


Born in Staten Island, New York, Ricker began his film career while practicing law in Kansas City in the early 1970s. He found that pianist Jay McShann was still playing. That discovery inspired the idea for his first documentary. The Last of the Blue Devils was about jazz survivors of the Kansas City of the 1930s, when the city was as an incubator of swing era musicians, among them Count Basie, Lester Young and the emerging Charlie Parker. Ricker formed a company, Rhapsody Productions, to produce it. Reviewing the movie in 1980, Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times:

As an informed documentary should be, ”The Last of the Blue Devils” is as much shaped by the filmmaker’s response to his subject as the subject itself. Mr. Ricker is both a fan and a historian. More important, he has the apparent gift for bringing the best out of these musicians, including Count Basie, Big Joe Turner, Jay McShann and Ernie Williams.

In partnership with Eastwood in later films, Ricker refined his documentary technique beyond that of The Last of the Blue Devils. It grew more intimate and revealing. Here is a clip from Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser (1988)), produced by Ricker and directed by Charlotte Zwerin. Monk and his longtime tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse discuss chord changes to “Boo Boo’s Birthday.”


Ricker’s Brubeck documentary, broadcast last December on Brubeck’s 90th birthday, has not been released on DVD.

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  1. says

    WFCR screened “The Last of the Blue Devils” in a jazz-on-film series at Amherst (MA) Cinema last year, and it was the biggest hit of the series. So much love, so much candor, so much swing. I’ll dedicate tomorrow night’s Jazz a la Mode, a feature on Big Joe Turner’s 100th birthday, to Bruce’s memory.

  2. Dora Naughton says

    Bruce was a good friend to my family. I am so sad to hear of his passing. I can only hope he’s been reunited with the greats who are playing him a tune right now.

  3. says

    Thanks for publicizing, even sadly in death, the good works of Mr. Ricker. I thought Blue Devils terrific when seen many years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed the Monk, but in both instances without ever having the good sense to scope out the important credits. Better informed now, I really look forward to the release on DVD of Ricker’s Brubeck.

  4. Deborah Zike says

    Bruce was a great film maker, but I will always remember the really fun parties he used to give in Kansas City in the 1970’s. He had the nicest and most interesting people there, and he was really a great host. I am so glad he became a film maker. I am sad he could not live to do more.

  5. Danny Iammatteo says

    Bruce was one of my closest friends in high school. I remember him for his charming wit and his vast knowledge of a wide variety of subjects.. He was a hardnosed basketball player with a great shot and he was a tenacious defender.. He left his coat in my car on the night of our 25th anniversary of our high school graduation from New Dorp High School. When I attempted to throw it to him after he boarded the Staten Island ferry to Manhattan he just laughed it off.

  6. Tommie Pardue says

    Bruce was a good friend and will surely be missed. I am so glad that he was able to create the Brubeck Documentary and see it presented on national TV. His incredible documentaries left a remarkable legacy.

  7. Nona Lenore Finnbogason says

    I am Bruce Ricker’s second wife, Lenore, the Icelandic Canadian. We married when I was 20 and he was 33. Our marriage lasted five years.

    I was watching the the Dave Brubeck film on Turner Channel last night and saying to my husband that I was so proud of Bruce and his amazing career. He was a man who persisted and contributed so much to documenting the world of Jazz. He became the man he decided to be, way back then in Kansas City.

    I was a very lucky young lady to be able to work as a production assistant on “Last of the Blue Devils”, meeting the masters that Bruce was able to convince to come back to the Musicians Union Hall. We spent many nights over a couple of years, listening until early morning to many of the talented musicians who were still playing there along with Ernie, one of the stars of the “Blue Devils.”

    At the end of the Dave Brubeck film, the announcer said that Bruce had passed away! I was shocked and saddened. It just seems so young, to leave in his sixties.
    I last communicated with Bruce in 2005 to ask him about some good spots in NYC to take my 21 year old daughter who is a musician of piano and guitar and loves Jazz. She used to go to bed with headphones on at 10 years old listening to Thelonious Monk play. I so wish that she could have met Bruce.

    He told me then that he had married a wonderful woman named Kate and that they had or were adopting a young girl. I was very happy for him. He was a brilliant man, who grew up on Staten Island, put himself throught university by driving a cab in Manhattan and never stopped achieving his dreams. Hats off to you Bruce. I’m sure you are in good company!

    PS.If Kenny or Carl, his brothers that I got to know, are reading any of this, I send my condolences to you and your families. If either of you know about Scotty, Bruce’s great buddy in New York and KC, I’d like to know how he is. I live in Huntsville, Ontario, Canada and am in the book.