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 the past.
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 of love.
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 and film.
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 materialized.)
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.”