A new post from our fantastic Summer Intern, Derek Murphy!
Diving deep into a stranger’s records can be an intense experience. As the summer 2015 intern at the Harvard Film Conservation Center, I trawled through a career’s worth of documents from the life and work of Bruce Ricker. Ricker was primarily a jazz and blues documentary filmmaker. From his first pivot from law practice to filmmaking in 1974 until his death in 2011, he worked tirelessly to promote education about and appreciation for the music that moved him.
The majority of the papers I organized originated from the production of Ricker’s films. His first feature documentary, The Last of the Blue Devils, saw him capturing and preserving some of the final performances the world ever saw from Count Basie, Big Joe Turner, and several other prominent musicians from the 1920’s Kansas City jazz scene. The film was treasured by jazz enthusiasts, eventually attracting the attention of Clint Eastwood. A lifelong listener and performer of jazz music, Eastwood loved the film, and contacted Ricker out of the blue. The two met for dinner and began a friendship that led to the creation of several more films. Most notably, Ricker and Eastwood collaborated on one of Ricker’s most well-known films, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser. The 1988 documentary featured rare and previously unreleased archival footage of some of Monk’s later performances before illness ended his career, and eventually his life. It also contained interviews with many of Monk’s creative collaborators and loved ones after his death.
Ricker and Eastwood’s collaboration did not end there. The two worked together on the production of documentaries about Budd Boetticher, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mercer, and Dave Brubeck. Additionally, Ricker directed two documentaries about Eastwood. Ricker started Rhapsody Films, through which distributed his and other noteworthy films about jazz and blues. As I got a handle on Ricker’s papers I saw marketing materials, catalogs, notes, correspondence, and research related to the company.
The Harvard Film Archive prioritizes multimedia holdings over papers when processing materials, so when I came on board, Ricker’s papers had been only partially described, and had not yet been arranged. The goal of my internship was to describe the papers that hadn’t yet been looked at, and arrange the totality of them into series to help create a finding aid for the collection. On my first day, I was given four boxes of papers straight from Ricker’s filing cabinets, still in their original order. Over the course of several weeks, I dove into these papers. I kept a spreadsheet where I entered information about the folders and papers I encountered, to aid in their later arrangement. This was a great learning experience. It was very satisfying to make connections between papers I’d seen in completely different boxes, and come to realizations about their place in Ricker’s oeuvre.
I was not familiar with Ricker or his work when I began my internship, but by my last day I felt a strange closeness to him. Even though I’ll never meet him, I think that my work at the HFA has given me a strong sense of his personality. I am working on my own feature-length documentary right now, so as I looked over his notes and production documents, I got a good feel for his process, and I felt a certain kinship. I even picked up a few good tips from looking at his workflow! It’s a bit uncanny, getting to know a man through the incidental papers he left behind, but I’m thankful that I got the chance to.
My internship at the HFA was extremely instructive for me, and the time I spent there was completely worthwhile. I was able to pick up hands-on skills in working with both paper and film collections. It really grounded the theory I’ve been learning in my archives classes at Simmons College’s School of Library and Information Science. In addition to the expansion of my archives knowledge, I also learned the basics of physical film handling, something I’ve wanted to do for many years. Both of my supervisors were very generous with their time, willing to answer any questions I had. They were extremely skilled and they were happy to help me pick up some of those skills myself. And, most importantly, they were a ton of fun to hang out with!