Last month Amazon Prime debuted a three-part series exploring the interwoven histories of blues music and racism in America.
Monochrome: Black, White & Blue was produced and directed by Jon Brewer, whose previous documentaries include B.B. King: The Life of Riley, Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark, Jimi Hendrix: The Guitar Hero and Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story.
Before becoming a director and producer, Brewer managed musicians including David Bowie, Gene Clark of The Byrds, and Nick Taylor and Bill Wyman of The Rolling Stones.
We recently asked the English director (pictured below) about the making of the series. (Note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity).
Charlie Greenberg: What prompted your transition from managing some of the biggest names in music to making films about them?
Jon Brewer: Around 2005 I watched the most dreadful documentary about David Bowie that had been created by a TV channel out of Los Angeles. The documentary was so bad, and so inaccurate, that it infuriated me. They were asking people who had starred in Days of Our Lives about David Bowie’s songs. The whole situation prompted me to inform the BBC that we should document the life stories of major rock bands. They agreed with me and since then I am now on my 16th music-inspired documentary.
“I thought I knew everything, but I was so shocked by finding out that racism was still very apparent in all walks of life that I went out of my way to create this series.”
Greenberg: What was the genesis for Monochrome: Black, White & Blue?
Brewer: The reason Monochrome was created was a total self-indulgence move. I had been making BB King: The Life of Riley and Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark, and realized I knew very little about the blues. I thought I knew everything, but I was so shocked by finding out that racism was still very apparent in all walks of life that I went out of my way to create this series. Basically, it was my story of how the blues came about and how it affected the USA over the years side by side with the political changes that took place over a period of some 500 years.
Greenberg: When and where did white musicians begin embracing the blues?
Brewer: You don’t need to be black to play the blues, and you have never had to be. White musicians have been playing the blues for an awfully long time.
Greenberg: What did you learn in the process of making Monochrome that surprised you?
Brewer: I was extremely surprised that racism was so blatantly apparent in the South and other parts of America. As an example, BB King (left) said to me, “You can never change that problem,” which happened to be in Mississippi. “You weren’t born here.” I became very aware moving onward of the problems that you and we are all facing in America; America needs to sort out the problems.
Greenberg: What do you consider to be the first – or close to it – blues recording, and when was it recorded?
Brewer: The first blues recording goes way back to the drum beat. Watch the series.
“The first blues recording goes way back to the drum beat.”
Prime subscribers can stream the documentary at amazon.com/primevideo; or via the Amazon Prime Video app for connected TVs and other devices.
Amazon Prime costs $99 annually, with a free 30-day trial.
If you’re interested in watching Brewer’s other music documentaries, here’s where you can stream three of them:
- B.B. King: The Life of Riley – Available with a Fandor subscription ($10 a month or $90 a year, with free 14-day trial);
- Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark – Available with a Netflix subscription (plans range from $7.99 to $13.99 month, with a free one-month trial);
- Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story – Available via subscriptions to Hulu (plans include $5.99 a month with ads/$11.99 without, with a free one-month trial ) and Amazon Prime; you can also rent it starting at $2.99 in SD/$3.99 HD from the Microsoft Store and other providers.
Charlie Greenberg is both a jazz arranger and composer. A student of Americana, he specializes in ragtime piano and is the founder of the HHP Early Jazz Orchestra which performed many of his transcriptions of music recorded between 1917 and 1935. You can listen to some of Greenberg’s work at charlesgreenbergmusic.com.
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