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.