Bruce Ricker dies at 68; jazz and blues documentarian

Documentary filmmaker Bruce Ricker didn't start out making films.

A native New Yorker who earned a law degree from Brooklyn Law School, he arrived in Kansas City in 1970 as a teaching assistant at the University of Missouri and soon began practicing law.

But the seed for a new career was planted in 1972 when U.S. Atty. F. Russell Millin took the jazz-loving Ricker to the Mutual Musicians Federation, the city's old black musicians' union hall where veteran Kansas City jazzmen gathered for after-hours jam sessions.

"You could get there at 1 a.m., buy a pint of bourbon, and just hang out," Ricker recalled in a 1980 interview with the New York Times. "All the musicians who were still around would play there every night.

"After I'd been going there for around two years, I began to think it might be good to make a videotape, to capture what was happening before the older musicians died."

Working on a shoestring budget financed by a friend and enlisting friends as crew members, the novice documentarian filmed reunion sessions with pianist Jay McShann, vocalist Big Joe Turner, bandleader Count Basie and other surviving musicians associated with Kansas City — as well as a Basie big band performance.

The result — after more than four years of raising money to finish the editing and finding a distributor — was "The Last of the Blue Devils," a critically acclaimed 1979 feature-length documentary whose blend of performance footage, musicians' reminiscences and archival material was praised for capturing the essence of Kansas City jazz during its heyday in the 1930s and '40s.

Ricker, 68, who died of pneumonia May 13 in Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., frequently focused on music during his nearly four-decade career as a documentary filmmaker often associated with another jazz lover: Clint Eastwood.

Eastwood was so impressed when he saw "The Last of the Blue Devils" in the late 1980s that he contacted Ricker and offered his help in getting the film wider international distribution.

That launched Ricker's long association with Eastwood, who executive produced "Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser," a 1988 documentary produced by Ricker and Charlotte Zwerin, who also directed.

"We were both longtime fans of jazz," Eastwood told The Times on Monday. "He had a great passion for music of all kinds, actually, but jazz and blues especially."

With a laugh, Eastwood said that "Bruce was an interesting character."

"He was very droll," Eastwood said, adding that because Ricker was a New Yorker, "you had a hard time understanding him because he talked so fast. He had a very fertile imagination, and he'd come up with ideas about different projects to do."

Ricker came up with the idea of Eastwood focusing on piano players for what became the Eastwood-directed "Piano Blues" segment of "The Blues," the seven-part 2003 series executive produced by Martin Scorsese.

Eastwood served as a producer or executive producer on documentaries Ricker made for television: "Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That" (2005), "Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends" (2007), "Johnny Mercer: The Dream's on Me" (2009) and "Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way" (2010).

Ricker also directed and produced the 1997 TV documentary "Eastwood After Hours: Live at Carnegie Hall" and "Clint Eastwood: Out of the Shadows," a documentary that aired on PBS' "American Masters" series in 2000.

Born on Staten Island on Oct. 10, 1942, Ricker received a bachelor's degree in American Studies from the City College of New York in 1965 and earned his law degree from Brooklyn Law School in 1970. In Kansas City, he was an assistant city prosecutor before working for Millin.

Then came the critical acclaim for "The Last of the Blue Devils," which Newsweek's Jack Kroll called "a classic" and about which the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert wrote "To see it is to love it."

"At that point," Ricker recalled in a 2001 interview with the Kansas City Star, "I decided I was switching careers."

Ricker's first two marriages ended in divorce. He married Kate Gill, a daughter of the late New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, in 2000.

Besides his wife, he is survived by their daughter, Emma Gill; his son, Jason Ricker, from his first marriage, to Barbara Mautner; his mother, Estelle Van Pelt; three brothers, Kenneth, Carl and Robert; and two grandchildren.

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