Recent article by Robert Christgau for the Barnes & Noble Review, Dec. 13, 2009 about legendary jazzman Thelonious Monk…
Some scenes from my youth. Forgive me.
November 1959, say. Four or five of us sit around the medium-fi record player in Dartmouth’s College Hall. Sandy Lattimore, poet son of classicist Richmond and the guy who dubbed me Xgau, is spinning Thelonious Monk’s Misterioso, recorded live at the Five Spot on Cooper Square in 1958. The special source of his beaming, chortling delight is Johnny Griffin’s tenor solo on “In Walked Bud,” which 50 years later remains this fireman’s son’s favorite five minutes of recorded music.
June 1960. At 18, I am old enough to go to bars in NYC. I celebrate abstemiously in the cheap seats (a buck? two bucks?) of the Jazz Gallery on St. Mark’s Place, where the bill is shared – you could look it up – by the Thelonious Monk Quartet and the John Coltrane Quartet. I see Monk many times here. Charlie Rouse always plays tenor, with Monk comping and dancing.
July 1960, as I recall. A British salesman at Sam Goody’s advises Brilliant Corners over Misterioso. Objectively, he’s right. I all but memorize Brilliant Corners. But in the end I prefer Misterioso.
September-October 1964. The Jazz Gallery has folded and the Termini brothers have moved the Five Spot up to the corner of Third and St. Mark’s. A friend with a nearby sublet spends late evenings outside the club’s open windows, listening to Monk. Sometimes we park ourselves on the garbage cans in the St. Mark’s Hotel next door. Once or twice I pay the minimum inside. Still Charlie Rouse on tenor.
I caught Monk live after that, but it stopped being so personal. He was beginning to dry up and rock was beginning to flower; also, I had a girlfriend who countered my impolite distaste for folk music with an impolite distaste for jazz. Only then, two years before Monk disappeared to spend his last six years in silent seclusion, editing Gary Giddins at The Village Voice got me back into jazz. A girlfriend who liked jazz helped as well. Monk’s “Tea for Two” was on our wedding tape, and Misterioso proved a lifetime companion. One could even say Monk is my favorite artist. I have myself.
Yet beyond a few Consumer Guide entries I never wrote about him. I am a music critic and proud of it. But my formal command of music is minimal, and much of what goes on in jazz composition and improvisation is over my head. In their superb new Jazz, Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux put an old animadversion gently: “Only by penetrating deeper into the music, to the point where you listen like a musician, can you penetrate jazz’s most rewarding mysteries.” For a critic whose operative conceit is that he’s a fan, this truism can be discouraging. So I perked up when editor Rob van der Bliek introduced the two musicological essays that top off The Thelonious Monk Reader by observing: “Verbal descriptions relying on metaphor and imagery have often been more successful in conveying Monk’s musical ideas.”
Monk has many devout fans and millions of admirers. Among post-World War II jazzmen, his mythic stature is topped only by that of Miles Davis and John Coltrane – Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and even Charlie Parker don’t quite match up. Yet his literature is scant. Published in 2001, van der Bliek’s useful collection is already out of print, as are thoughtful studies, translated from the poetic French and the klutzy German respectively, by Laurent de Wilde and Thomas Fitterling. Still available is Leslie Gourse’s sketchy, digressive, ill-written 1997 Straight, No Chaser, which at least draws on a few interviews with Monk’s family, as de Wilde and Fitterling do not. But it’s blown away by Robin D.G. Kelley’s big, invaluable new biography.
Kelley is a history professor who’s written or co-written many books on African-American radicalism. But as a defender of gangsta rap who’s serious enough about the piano to own a baby grand, he’s not poaching when he turns to music. The meticulously researched Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original plods some, especially toward the end – Kelley can write, but isn’t great at motorvating narrative. Nevertheless, he performs the essential and gratifying task of transforming a deliberately enigmatic eccentric–“I like to stand out, man. I’m not one of the crowd” – into a warm, familiar, flesh-and-blood presence.
Kelley emphasizes that the chapeau-sporting genius who wrote “Nutty” was at bottom a devoted husband and father rooted in a social network dating back to his childhood on West 63rd Street in Manhattan, where he moved from North Carolina at age four in 1922. There Monk lived – except for two teen years in a gospel roadshow and a few sojourns with relatives in the Bronx – until he retreated to the Weehawken home of Baroness Nica de Koenigswater in 1976 and embarked upon his farewell silence. Monk was close to his extended family and a generous friend to many musicians, especially his protege Bud Powell, who eclipsed him for a time – and whose heroin Monk once took the rap for, sacrificing his cabaret card and much of his livelihood for six years in the ’50s.
Monk’s genius wouldn’t have come down to us without the nurturance of three women: his wife Nellie, his patron Nica, and his indulgent, indomitable mother Barbara. But unlike Powell or Parker, he wasn’t a sponge – he gave back plenty. Capable of trancing out at the piano for days when perfecting a musical idea, he was also capable of taking care of his two kids when Nellie had to work some job she was too smart for. He was a straight shooter as well as an eccentric. But Kelley also details many bizarre episodes as well as freakouts kicked off by the deaths of people he loved. He’s candid about Monk’s heavy drinking and lifelong reliance on recreational and prescription drugs. And he explores exactly what kind of nutty he was. Kelley’s diagnosis: bipolarism exacerbated by drug use, especially the Thorazine-amphetamine cocktails administered by the Beatles’ “Dr. Robert,” last name Freymann.
While establishing that Monk was observant, widely informed, and often articulate – as opposed to the “emotional and intuitive man, possessing a child’s vision of the world” Lewis Lapham fabricated in a typical 1964 profile – Kelley never forgets that he lived above all for music. I wish there was a money shot – a few pages summing up Kelley’s phenomenally knowledgeable overview of that music. And many of his observations were anticipated by such critics as, among others, André Hodeir, Martin Williams, and Scott DeVeaux, whose essays in van der Bliek’s collection I found especially helpful. Nevertheless, a thorough and compelling picture of Monk the musician does emerge.
Neither self-taught nor formally trained, Monk knew classical music but was immersed in jazz and Tin Pan Alley. He was very much a New York musician and learned a lot, often firsthand, from such Harlem masters as James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith, whose boogie strode where Southerners like Cow Cow Davenport and Speckled Red rollicked. For several years house pianist at the bebop hotbed Minton’s, he got props from Bird and sometimes Diz, though not as many as he thought he deserved. But he was never the true bebopper Kelley sums up as “running substitute chord changes at breakneck speed.” He didn’t record as a leader until 1947, when he was almost 30 and Parker and Gillespie were almost famous.
Short-lived in its quicksilver can-you-top-this? phase, bebop was a seismic music that forever opened jazz improvisation to the mold-breaking ingenuity of jazz soloists. But Monk’s historical association with the style made his tremendous durability harder to hear. Next to Duke Ellington, Giddins and DeVeaux note, Monk is “the most widely performed of all jazz composers” – based on only 70 copyrights where Ellington notched 2000-plus. He was a hell of a piano player. But as Whitney Balliett put it in the most famous Monk sentence ever written (which Kelley fails to cite): “His improvisations were molten Monk compositions, and his compositions were frozen Monk improvisations.” Maybe the whole-tone scales he loved sounded weird; maybe they still do. But because he was such a diligent composer, the structural underpinnings of his music are always there to comfort anyone willing to meet it halfway.
Because Monk liked to take things slow, it’s easy to miss how strong he swings at first – many bassists and drummers did miss it, until he explained. But his pulse is always there doing its work. Similarly, the hallmark of Monk’s simpler tunes (“Misterioso,” “Bemsha Swing,” the easy-listening “‘Round Midnight”) as well as his mind-twisters (“Little Rootie Tootie,” “Trinkle, Tinkle,” the impossible “Brilliant Corners”) is their dissonances, a/k/a harmonies, often augmented by the disquieting silences built into their phrasing. But by now we’ve learned how pleasurable those tunes are anyway. Proud of his innovations, Monk didn’t identify as a traditionalist. But rhythmically and melodically, one reason he sounded so wiggy, so strenuous, so difficult was that he was committed to honoring the best of the past as he told the world how he felt now.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the way this great composer treated pop songs, usually solo or trio but sometimes with horns – to my ears, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” in 1954 and “Lulu’s Back in Town” in 1964 rank with his most extraordinary group recordings. According to Kelley, Monk seldom tossed these tunes off, often working them out note by note beforehand. Still, the standard mandarin view is that jazzmen resent the standards they’re expected to cover and so plot to undermine what British Monk fan Michael James, who I guess never met Nellie, called “the dogma which puts forward a partnership between man and woman as the guarantee of a blissful existence.”
Thus Kelley diminishes as merely “hilarious” the same “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” Martin Williams considers “a recomposition” that strips the Jerome Kern perennial to “its implicit beauty.” And thus Williams disparages the notion that Monk would consider playing his first “Tea for Two” in a corny, ricky-tick style even though the Criss-Cross version seven years later moves slyly in just that direction. As DeVeaux observes, Monk’s “affinity for the popular songs he grew up with” is probably “more deeply embedded in jazz as a whole than its most ardent champions might care to admit.” But it ran even deeper in Monk himself.
So Monk was less “avant-garde” than his scales and structures made him seem. He was an entertainer, too – when he finally began gigging regularly at 40, the little dances he did as his musicians soloed definitely brought in the hoi polloi. But when I look back at myself as the rock critic I had no idea I would become, I still ask myself why I was so drawn to Monk at first, and why I returned so readily when I was ready.
For sure I dug those dances too, but as part of something that is often said but seldom explored. Monk was funny. Really funny – as funny as Bob Dylan or the Ramones. Yet that too was part of something bigger – a knowing, affectionate nod to the variegations of human interaction and imagination that his sense of beauty encompassed. What I treasured most when I saw him live, even more than his tunes and his solos, was his comping – the sharp, sour, wickedly timed notes, chords, and elbow smashes he’d lay atop riveting solos by saxophonists who had struggled for weeks first to learn his heads and then to improvise off their melodies rather than their chords as he insisted. Though there’s plenty of humor in cutting contests, this joshing synergy has few parallels in any music I know. As Johnny Griffin told Kelley: “His music, with him comping, is so overwhelming, like it’s almost like you’re trying to break out of a room made of marshmallows.”
Monk’s tunes weren’t sweet like marshmallows, but they sure were sticky, and one function of his comps was to point players back to the molten core indicated by the title on the setlist. Monk’s painstaking compositions, reworked standards, and insistence that his sidemen learn his book by ear so they wouldn’t be tempted by the changes – all bespeak a committed melodicism that an 18-year-old jazz fan destined to spend his life listening to pop songs must have felt even when he lost the melody himself (which he still does sometimes). As Balliett put it in a quip closely related to the famous one: “His improvisations were ingenious attempts to disguise his love of melody.” Damn right he re-revised as he felt the moment demanded, occasionally with satiric intent. But I didn’t nominate his “Tea for Two” for my wedding tape because I thought he was mocking domestic intimacy. I nominated it because I sensed he knew how to adjust to its ups and downs a lot better than Victor Youmans – or Art Tatum. And also because he was willing to grant the happy couple a catchy tune even so.
Ah yes, Art Tatum. In my view, the anti-Monk. Griffin recalls the night when Monk executed “a Tatumesque run on the piano and my eyeballs and my ears almost fell off of my head,” only to hear Monk add, “But I don’t need that.” Maybe, although listening to Monk’s indelicate recorded arpeggios up against Tatum’s or Powell’s, I wonder how long he could have sustained or varied that run and understand why speed-crazy bebop fools dissed his chops. What there’s no maybe about is that Monk didn’t need speed. His bent notes and unlikely fingerings evinced a technique few other pianists dreamed of, and he had power.
Monk’s strength in the lower regions of the piano is well understood – Ellington once introduced him as “the baddest left hand in the history of jazz.” But jazz chroniclers never seem to mention the singular muscularity of his two-handed attack. Some players – Kenny Barron and Cecil Taylor are two I’ve found – emulate that muscularity on Monk covers, but even acolytes like Barry Harris and Fred Hersch cultivate a lighter touch overall. Though there must be others, the only album-length exception I know in postwar jazz is by none other than Duke Ellington: his late great Ray Brown collaboration This One’s for Blanton. But go back to Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith and Cow Cow Davenport, or fast-forward to any number of rock-era players – Professor Longhair! Jerry Lee Lewis! hell, Elton John! – and you’ve got a contest on your hands.
No wonder the future rock critic loved Thelonious Monk. He played loud.
One benefit of finally writing a Monk piece is that I got to spend a month with the core of his catalogue: his work for Blue Note (1947-1952 plus the 1957 Carnegie Coltrane concert), Prestige (1953-1954), Riverside (1955-1961), and Columbia (1962-1968). I’ll play most of it again with relish, though there are more posthumous live albums than any nonspecialist needs. But I can make a few observations other nonspecialists may find useful.
1) Most (not all) of the 39 tracks on the two Blue Note Genius of Modern Music discs are precious, including the alternate takes (available in more profusion on more expensive collections). But if one stuck to the 13 on 2005’s once budget-priced, now out-of-print The Very Best, one would have something like what the title promises.
2) Monk was never recorded more acutely than on Prestige. Thelonious Monk Trio, with drumming by both Art Blakey and Max Roach, is his finest showcase as a composer, and not only does Thelonious Monk/Sonny Rollins feature Rollins, so does the one just called Monk. Boo-yah.
3) There are too many Riversides, and the leadoff album of Ellington covers with which Orrin Keepnews convinced the jazz public that Thelly was a regular guy is too respectful. But Brilliant Corners and Misterioso (slightly less conclusive bonus tracks included) really do represent a peak, Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane is a wonder (don’t miss ‘Trane on “Trinkle, Tinkle”), Mulligan Meets Monk relaxes without ever going soft, Monk’s Music bends four horns to his will, and Thelonious Himself, his first solo album, is probably his best, though some argue sanely for the posthumous Columbia comp. After that there are lesser good ones and some dicey stuff. I am not a fan of the underrehearsed Town Hall “orchestra.”
4) John Wilson fairly complained that Monk was “more placid” with tenor man Charlie Rouse, the only saxophonist on the Columbias and the only saxophonist I ever saw him with. But I’ll keep playing Criss-Cross, Monk’s Dream, It’s Monk’s Time, and Monk. anyway. Maybe even Underground.
5) Why wouldn’t a person buy Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall?
6) Though it’s drawn largely from keepers recommended above, I feel fortunate to own a gorgeously intelligent Monk compilation called The Art of the Ballad. Most of the others I can do without.
7) On Tom Moon’s say-so a year ago, I purchased Carmen McRae’s Carmen Sings Monk. The lyrics vary. The performances invariably turn Monk lyrical.
Monk played with many titans. Coltrane and Rollins, whew; Mulligan, no slouch; Coleman Hawkins, always a fan; Gillespie, Parker, and Davis, wary bosses. But when Monk took on Coltrane or Rollins or even Mulligan, it wasn’t just Monk’s record anymore – their voices remained very much their own. So because Monk’s songs evolved in his mind and practice, there was an advantage in entrusting them to Charlie Rouse, who came to know Monk’s music like no one else.
Rouse was so unfazed by Monk’s provocations that you had to root for him, but his own records never took off. He needed Monk’s guidelines. Mustering a breathy sound with plenty of grit and body to it, he specialized in down-to-earth solos and sensible ripostes to the big man’s outlandish suggestions. I prefer the studio albums featuring Rouse, meaning those Columbias, to the inevitable glut of catalogue-stuffing live ones (try Monk in Action first), especially because Monk’s gigs settled into the half-magnanimous, half-lazy pattern of giving his rhythm players solo room on nearly every number; over many sets, I grew to resent drummer Frankie Dunlop far more than his ingrained swing and subtle shuffles deserved. But all we have of Johnny Griffin’s time with Monk is two live albums – Misterioso and the less intense Thelonious in Action. Never mind At the Five Spot, which boils them down to one disc – you need the outtakes. A faster, sharper, and more forceful player than Rouse who’s less distinct than the titans, Griffin is my favorite Monk saxophonist.
What’s odd about the pairing is that the young Griffin wasn’t a ballad guy, while Monk’s watchword was “it’s really harder to play slow than it is to play fast.” Monk prevails, natch, but not without giving a little – his Griffin band ups the pace just enough to warm a rock and roller’s fundament. Or maybe it’s Griffin’s irrepressibility making it seem that way, like when he takes off on Misterioso’s “Blues Five Spot,” with Monk comping cordially for a while before the entire band lays out and lets him loop-de-loop on his own for 45 seconds. Like every soloist, Griffin had his tricks, mannerisms, and pet phrases. Listening hard, I hear tiny elements of the solo I’ve so long adored in between 2:21 and 2:52 of Thelonious in Action’s “Evidence,” and plenty more in his four- minute workout on that CD’s “In Walked Bud.” But let me praise my beloved.
On Misterioso, Griffin’s “In Walked Bud” solo starts less than a minute in, after a slightly fractured eight-bar piano intro and 32 bars of AABA by the quartet. Although Griffin follows the song’s structure obediently throughout, he obscures the theme posthaste, and when it diddybops back toward familiarity for a couple of bars festoons it with the first of many high wails. Griffin’s tone is mostly smooth and Monk’s comping mostly supportive as a melody more Griffin than Monk yet still “In Walked Bud” saunters and dips and stutter-steps and soars and unrolls till Monk lays out at around 3:00. Then, boom, Griffin goes crazy. Phrasing double- and then triple-speed toward the top of his register while signalling intermittent slowdowns with low r&b honks and blats, he works fast- moderate-fast as if extending a God-touched Sam “The Man” Taylor break toward an infinity lasting three minutes and twenty-one seconds. Monk yells or grunts approval at 3:42, 4:35, 5:38. But at 6:21 he takes over, tweaking an all but straight A theme that he shifts between his playful right hand and his sardonic left for two minutes. After Ahmed Abdul-Malik wastes 1:20 on a bass solo, Roy Haynes elicits more of the tune from his trap set than Griffin granted on his sax before the ensemble bids us a loose, energetic unison farewell. Cut immediately to two minutes of solo “Just a Gigolo,” a lugubrious chestnut Monk recorded six times and counting. One needs some certainty in life.
Gazing steely-eyed at this solo, which I recognize is not a certifiable peak of Western civilization, I suspect that what really got and gets me about it is r&b elements that were rarely if ever so blatant in Griffin’s work as a leader – co-existing here with intimations of free jazz. Somehow Monk, who except for that gospel roadshow was jazz and pop through and through and never gave Ornette much respect, brought the r&b and the free out in Griffin in what sounds like youthful defiance even if it wasn’t. And somehow Monk excitedly vocalizes his approval before restoring his own deeply satisfying order-in-disorder two different ways. No one now questions the musicality of that order. But the generosity of spirit that precedes and nurtures it often goes unremarked. Kelley’s vision of Monk’s life should make his generosity easier to perceive. But as I’m sure Kelley would insist, it’s on record for anyone with ears to hear.
Taken from the great Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane album, comes this beautiful rendition of the Monk classic. Coltrane sounds superb on this one.
This article on Thelonious Monk comes from Time magazine, Feb. 28, 1964…
Everyone who came to meet his plane wore a fur hat, and the sight was too much for him to bear. “Man, we got to have those!” he told his sidemen, and for fear that the hat stores would be closed before they could get to downtown Helsinki, they fled from the welcome-to-Finland ceremonies as fast as decency permitted. And sure enough, when Thelonious Monk shambled out on the stage of the Kulttuuritalo that night to the spirited applause of 2,500 young Finns, there on his head was a splendid creation in fake lamb’s-wool.
At every turn of his long life in jazz, Monk’s hats have described him almost as well as the name his parents had the crystal vision to invent for him 43 years ago — Thelonious Sphere Monk. It sounds like an alchemist’s formula or a yoga ritual, but during the many years when its owner merely strayed through life (absurd beneath a baseball cap), it was the perfect name for the legends dreamed up to account for his sad silence. “Thelonious Monk? He’s a recluse, man.” In the mid-’40s, when Monk’s reputation at last took hold in the jazz underground, his name and his mystic utterances (“It’s always night or we wouldn’t need light”) made him seem the ideal Dharma Bum to an audience of hipsters: anyone who wears a Chinese coolie hat and has a name like that must be cool.
High Philosophy. Now Monk has arrived at the summit of serious recognition he deserved all along, and his name is spoken with the quiet reverence that jazz itself has come to demand. His music is discussed in composition courses at Juilliard, sophisticates find in it affinities with Webern, and French Critic Andre Hodeir hails him as the first jazzman to have “a feeling for specifically modern esthetic values.” The complexity jazz has lately acquired has always been present in Monk’s music, and there is hardly a jazz musician playing who is not in some way indebted to him. On his tours last year he bought a silk skullcap in Tokyo and a proper chapeau at Christian Dior’s in Paris; when he comes home to New York next month with his Finnish lid, he will say with inner glee, “Yeah—I got it in Helsinki.” The spectacle of Monk at large in Europe last week was cheerful evidence of his new fame—and evidence, too, of how far jazz has come from its Deep South beginnings. In Amsterdam, Monk and his men were greeted by a sellout crowd of 2,000 in the Concertgebouw, and their Düsseldorf audience was so responsive that Monk gave the Germans his highest blessing: “These cats are with it!” The Swedes were even more hip; Monk played to a Stockholm audience that applauded some of his compositions on the first few bars, as if he were Frank Sinatra singing Night and Day, and Swedish television broadcast the whole concert live. Such European enthusiasm for a breed of cat many Americans still consider weird, if not downright wicked, may seem something of a puzzle. But to jazzmen touring Europe, it is one more proof that the limits of the art at home are more sociological than esthetic.
Though Monk’s career has been painful and often thankless, it has also been a tortoise-and-hare race with flashier, more ingratiating men—many of whom got lost in narcotic fogs, died early in squalor and disgrace or abandoned their promise, to fall silent on their horns. Monk goes on. It is his high philosophy to be different and having steadily ignored all advice and all the fads and vogues of jazz that made lesser musicians grow rich around him, he now reaps the rewards of his conviction gladly but without surprise. He has a dignified, three-album-a-year contract with Columbia Records, his quartet could get bookings 52 weeks a year, and his present tour of Europe is almost a sell-out in 20 cities from Helsinki to Milan. In his first fat year, Monk earned $50,000, and on checks as well as autograph books he signs his grand name grandly, like a man drawing a bird.
Monk’s lifework of 57 compositions is a diabolical and witty self-portrait, a string of stark snapshots of his life in New York. Changing meters, unique harmonies and oddly voiced chords create the effect of a desperate conversation in some other language, a fit of drunken laughter, a shout from a park at night. His melodies make mocking twins of naivete and cynicism, of ridicule and fond memory. Ruby, My Dear and Nutty are likably simple; Off Minor and Trinkle Tinkle are so complex that among pianists only Monk and his early protege, Bud Powell, have been able to improvise freely upon them.
Monk’s inimitable piano style is such an integral part of the music he has written that few jazz pianists have much luck with even the Monk tunes that have become part of the standard jazz repertory. Monk himself plays with deliberate incaution, attacking the piano as if it were a carillon’s keyboard or a finely tuned set of 88 drums. The array of sounds he divines from his Baldwin grand are beyond the reach of academic pianists; he caresses a note with the tremble of a bejeweled finger, then stomps it into its grave with a crash of elbow and forearm aimed with astonishing accuracy at a chromatic tone cluster an octave long.
Monk’s best showcase has always been a cafe on Manhattan’s Lower East Side called the Five Spot, where he ended a highly successful seven-month engagement in January. The ambiance of the Five Spot is perfect for Monk’s mood—dark, a little dank, smoke-soaked and blue. Night after night, Monk would play his compositions—the same tunes over and over again, with what appeared to be continuing fascination with all that they have to say.
Then he would rise from the piano to perform his Monkish dance. It is always the same. His feet stir in a soft shuffle, spinning him slowly in small circles. His head rolls back until hat brim meets collar, while with both hands he twists his goatee into a sharp black scabbard. His eyes are hooded with an abstract sleepiness, his lips are pursed in a meditative O. His cultists may crowd the room, but when he moves among them, no one risks speaking: he is absorbed in a fragile trance, and his three sidemen play on while he dances alone in the darkness. At the last cry of the saxophone, he dashes to the piano and his hands strike the keys in a cat’s pounce. From the first startled chord, his music has the urgency of fire bells.
Pretty Butterfly. At the piano, Monk is clearly tending to business, but once he steps away from it, people begin to wonder. Aside from his hat and the incessant shuffle of his feet, he looks like a perfectly normal neurotic. “Solid!” and “All reet!” are about all he will say in the gravelly sigh that serves as his voice, but his friends attribute great spiritual strength to him. Aware of his power over people, Monk is enormously selfish in the use of it. Passive, poutish moods sweep over him as he shuffles about, looking away, a member of the race of strangers.
Every day is a brand-new pharmaceutical event for Monk: alcohol, Dexedrine, sleeping potions, whatever is at hand, charge through his bloodstream in baffling combinations. Predictably, Monk is highly unpredictable. When gay, he is gentle and blithe to such a degree that he takes to dancing on the sidewalks, buying extravagant gifts for anyone who comes to mind, playing his heart out. One day last fall he swept into his brother’s apartment to dance before a full-length mirror so he could admire his collard-leaf boutonniere; he left without a word. “Hey!” he will call out. “Butterflies faster than birds? Must be, ’cause with all the birds on the scene up in my neighborhood, there’s this butterfly, and he flies any way he wanna.
Yeah. Black and yellow butterfly. Pretty butterfly.” At such times, he seems a very happy man.
At other times he appears merely mad. He has periods of acute disconnection in which he falls totally mute.
He stays up for days on end, prowling around desperately in his rooms, troubling his friends, playing the piano as if jazz were a wearying curse. In Boston Monk once wandered around the airport until the police picked him up and took him to Grafton State Hospital for a week’s observation. He was quickly released without strings, and though the experience persuaded him never to go out on the road alone again, he now tells it as a certification of his sanity. “I can’t be crazy,” he says with conviction, ” ’cause they had me in one of those places and they let me go.”
Much of the confusion about the state of Monk’s mind is simply the effect of Monkish humor. He has a great reputation in the jazz world as a master of the “put-on,” a mildly cruel art invented by hipsters as a means of toying with squares. Monk is proud of his skill. “When anybody says something that’s a drag,” he says, “I just say something that’s a bigger drag. Ain’t nobody can beat me at it either. I’ve had plenty of practice.” Lately, though, Monk has been more mannerly and conventional.
He says he hates the “mad genius” legend he has lived with for 20 years— though he’s beginning to wonder politely about the “genius” part.
Monk’s speculations were greatly encouraged in December, when he crowned all his recent achievements with a significant trip uptown from the Five Spot to Philharmonic Hall. There he presided over a concert by a special ten-piece ensemble and his own quartet.
The music was mainly Monk’s own— nine compositions from the early / Mean You to Oska T., which he wrote last summer under a title that is his own transcription of an Englishman’s saying “Ask for T.” (“And the T,” says Thelonious, “is me.”) The concert was the most successful jazz event of the season, and Monk greeted his triumph with grace and style. At the piano he turned to like a blacksmith at a cranky forge— foot flapping madly, a moan of exertion fleeing his lips. The music he made suggested that the better he is received by his audience the better he gets.
Happenings in Harlem. For Monk, the pleasure of playing in Philharmonic Hall was mainly geographical. The hall was built three blocks from the home he has occupied for nearly 40 years, and Monk serenely regards the choice of the site as a favor to him from the city fathers, a personal convenience, along with the new bank and the other refinements that urban renewal has brought to his old turf. The neighborhood, in Manhattan’s West 60s, is called San Juan Hill. It is one of the oldest and most decent of the city’s Negro ghettos. Monk’s family settled there in 1924, coming north from Rocky Mount, N.C., where Thelonious was born.
He was a quiet, obedient, polite child, but his name very quickly set him apart.
“Nobody messed with Thelonious,” he recalls, “but they used to call me ‘Monkey,’ and you know what a drag that was.” His father returned to the South alone to recover from a long illness, leaving Monk’s mother, a sternly correct civil servant, to work hard to give her three children a genteel polish. At eleven, Thelonious began weekly piano lessons at 75¢ an hour.
It took Monk only a year to discover that the pianists he really admired were not in the books—such players as Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson. By the time he was 14, Monk was playing jazz at hard-times “rent parties” up in Harlem. He soon began turning up every Wednesday for amateur night at the Apollo Theater, but he won so often that he was eventually barred from the show. He was playing stride piano—a single note on the first and third beats of the bar, a chord on the second and fourth. Unable to play with the rococo wizardry of Art Tatum or Teddy Wilson, though, he found a way of his own. His small hands and his unusual harmonic sense made his style unique.
Monk quit high school at 16 to go on tour with a divine healer—”we played and she healed.” But within a year he was back in New York, playing the piano at Kelly’s Stable on 52nd Street.
The street was jumping in those days, and in advance of the vogue, Monk bought a zoot suit and grew a beard; his mood, for a change, was just right for the time. The jazz world was astir under the crushing weight of swing; the big dance bands had carried off the healthiest child of Negro music and starved it of its spirit until its parents no longer recognized it. In defiant self-defense, Negro players were developing something new—”something they can’t play,” Monk once called it—and at 19, Monk got to the heart of things by joining the house band at Minton’s.
The New Sound. All the best players of the time would drop by to sit in at Minton’s. Saxophonist Charlie (“Bird”) Parker, Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Drummer Kenny Clarke and Guitarist Charlie Christian were all regulars and, in fitful collaboration with them, Monk presided at the birth of bop. His playing was a needling inspiration to the others. Rhythms scrambled forward at his touch; the oblique boldness of his harmonies forced the horn players into flights the likes of which had never been heard before. “The Monk runs deep,” Bird would say, and with some reluctance Monk became “the High Priest of Bebop.” The name of the new sound, Monk now says, was a slight misunderstanding of his invention: “I was calling it bipbop, but the others must have heard me wrong.” When bop drifted out of Harlem and into wider popularity after the war, Monk was already embarked on his long and lonely scuffle. Straight bop— which still determines the rhythm sense of most jazzmen—was only a passing phase for Monk. He was outside the mainstream, playing a lean, dissonant, unresolved jazz that most players found perilously difficult to accompany. Many musicians resented him, and he quickly lost his grip on steady jobs. Alone in his room, where he had composed his earliest music—’Round Midnight, Well, You Needn’t, Ruby, My Dear—he worked or simply stared at the picture of Billie Holiday tacked to his ceiling.
In 1947 he made his first recording under his own name and witnessed, to his horror, a breathless publicity campaign that sounded as if the Abominable Snowman had been caged by Blue Note Records.
The same year, Monk married a neighborhood girl named Nellie Smith, who had served a long and affectionate apprenticeship lighting his cigarettes and washing his dishes. Monk had always been unusually devoted to his mother; Nellie simply moved into his room so he could stay home with mom. Thus, to his intense satisfaction, he had two mothers. He still found jobs hard to come by, so Nellie went to work as a clerk to buy him clothes and cheer him up with pocket money.
A Drink at Least. Things were terrible until 1951, when they got worse.
Monk was arrested along with Bud Powell when a packet of heroin was found in their possession. Monk had always been “clean,” but he refused to let Powell take the rap alone. “Every day I would plead with him,” Nellie says. ” ‘Thelonious, get yourself out of this trouble. You didn’t do anything.’ But he’d just say, ‘Nellie, I have to walk the streets when I get out. I can’t talk.'” Monk held his silence and was given 60 days in jail.
As soon as he was released, the police canceled his “cabaret card,” a document required of all entertainers who appear in New York nightclubs.
Losing the card cost Monk his slender livelihood, but he had a reputation as an oddball and the police were adamant. For six years Monk could not play in New York; though he made a few records and went out on the road now and then, he was all but silenced. “Everybody was saying Thelonious was weird or locked up,” Nellie recalls. “But they just talked that way because they’d never see him. He hated to be asked why he wasn’t working, and he didn’t want to see anybody unless he could buy them a drink at least.
Besides, it hurts less to be passed over for jobs if you aren’t around to hear the others’ names called. It was a bad time. He even had to pay to get into Birdland.” Monk was the man who was not with it, and jazz was passing him by.
Miles Davis had come on with his “impressionist” jazz style—a rubato blowing in spurts and swoons, free of any vibrato, cooler than ice. The Modern Jazz Quartet was playing a kind of introverted 17th century jazz behind inscrutable faces, and Dave Brubeck (TIME cover, Nov. 8, 1954) introduced polished sound that came with the complete approval of Darius Milhaud. Suddenly jazz—one of the loveliest and loneliest of sounds, the creation of sad and sensitive men—was awash with rondos and fugues. The hipsters began dressing like graduate students.
Money & Medicine. Monk was sustained during much of this bleak time by his friend, mascot and champion, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, 50. The baroness had abandoned the aseptic, punctual world of her family* for the formless life of New York’s night people. In 1955 she acquired undeserved notoriety when Charlie Parker died in her apartment (BOP KING DIES IN HEIRESS’ FLAT); she had merely made an honest stab at saving his life with gifts of money and medicine in his last few days. From then on, though, Nica cut a wide swath in the jazz world.
She is, after all, not a Count Basie or a Duke Ellington, but an honest-to-God Baroness; seeing her pull up in her Bentley with a purse crammed with Chivas Regal, the musicians took enormous pride in her friendship.
Monk was her immediate fascination, and Monk, who only has eyes for Nellie, cheerfully took her on as another mother. She gave him rides, rooms to compose and play in and, in 1957, help in getting back the vital cabaret card. The baroness, along with Monk’s gentle manager, a Queens high school teacher named Harry Colomby, collected medical evidence that Monk was not a junkie, along with character references by jazzmen and musical scholars. The cops gave in, and for the first time in years Monk began playing regularly in New York. The music he made at the Five Spot with Tenorman John Coltrane was the talk of jazz.
Monk was making a small but admired inroad into the “funk” and “soul” movements that had superseded the “cool.” Funk was a deeper reach into Negro culture than jazz had taken before, a restatement of church music and African rhythms, but its motive was the same as bop’s—finding something that white musicians had not taken over and, if possible, something they would sound wrong playing.
Then Monk lost his card again.
Monk, the baroness, and Monk’s present saxophonist, Charlie Rouse, 39, were driving through Delaware for a week’s work in Baltimore. Monk stopped at a motel for a drink of water, and when he lingered in his imposing manner, the manager called the police.
Monk was back in the Bentley when the cops arrived, and he held fast to the steering wheel when they tried to pull him out—on the Monkish ground that he had done nothing to deserve their attention. Even though the baroness shrieked to watch out for his hands, the furious cops gave his knuckles such a beating that he bears the lumps to this day. The baroness took the rap for “some loose marijuana” found in the trunk, but after three years’ legal maneuvering she was acquitted. No narcotics charges were placed against Monk, but because of the scandal the police again picked up his card.
You Tell ‘Em. Two years later, after further lobbying at Headquarters, Monk returned to the scene. Since then his luck has changed. Three years have passed without a whisper of trouble.
Abroad, at least, he is approached as if he were a visiting professor. (Interview on an Amsterdam radio station last week: “Who has had the greatest influence on your playing, Mr. Monk?” “Well, me, of course.”) Most pleasing of all to Monk is a new quartet led by Soprano Saxophonist Steve Lacy that is dedicated solely to the propagation of Monk’s music. In the past Monk has been the only voice of his music; he even has trouble finding sidemen.
His present accompanists—Rouse on tenor, Butch Warren, 24, on bass, and Ben Riley, 30, on drums—have a good feeling for his music. Rouse is a hard-sound player who knows that his instrument suggests a human cry more than a bird song, and he plays as if he is speaking the truth. Warren’s rich, loping bass is well suited to Monk’s rhythms if not his harmonic ideals; he is like a pony in pasture who traces his mother’s footsteps without stealing her grace. Riley has just joined the band, but he could be the man Monk has been looking for. A great drummer, as the nonpareil Baby Dodds once observed, “ought to make the other fellas feel like playing.” Riley does exactly that, with a subtle, very musical use of the drums that forsakes thunder for thoughtfulness.
Monk’s sidemen traditionally hang back, smiling and relaxed, and apart from an occasional Rouse solo, they seem content to let Monk lead. “That’s right, Monk,” they seem to be saying, “you tell ‘em, baby.” But Monk demands that musicians be themselves. “A man’s a genius just for looking like himself,” he will say. “Play yourself!” With such injunctions in the air, the quartet’s performances are uneven. Some nights all four play as though their very lives are at stake; some nights, wanting inspiration, all four sink without a bubble. But it is part of Monk’s mystique never to fire anyone. He just waits, hoping to teach, trusting that a man who cannot learn will eventually sense the master’s indifference and discreetly abandon ship.
Now that Monk is being heard regularly, he seems more alone than ever. Jazz has unhappily splintered into hostile camps, musically and racially. Lyrical and polished players are accused of “playing white,” which means to pursue beauty before truth. The spirit and sound of each variety of jazz is carefully analyzed, isolated and pronounced a “bag.” Players in the soul bag, the African bag and the freedom bag are all after various hard, aggressive and free sounds, and there are also those engaged in “action blowing,” a kind of shrieking imitation of action painting.
Within each bag, imitation of the “daddy” spreads through the ranks like summer fires. Trumpeters try to play like Miles Davis. And hold their horns like Miles. And dress like Miles. Bassists imitate Charlie Mingus or Scott La Faro; drummers, Max Roach or Elvin Jones. Sax players copy Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, who is presently so much the vogue that the sound of his whole quartet is being echoed by half the jazz groups in the country.
Bud Powell, Red Garland, Bill Evans and Horace Silver all have had stronger influences than Monk’s on jazz pianists. Monk’s sound is so obviously his own that to imitate it would be as risky and embarrassing as affecting a Chinese accent when ordering chop suey. Besides, Monk is off in a bag all his own, and in the sleek, dry art that jazz threatens to become, that is the best thing about him.
A Curse in Four Beats. In the gossipy world of jazz, Monk is also less discussed than many others. Occasionally he will say some splendid thing and the story will make the rounds, but there are personalities more actively bizarre than Monk’s around. Rollins is a Rosicrucian who contemplates the East River, letting his telephone ring in his ear for hours while he studies birds from his window. Mingus is so obsessed with goblins from the white world that person to person he is as perverse as a roulette wheel; his analyst wrote the notes for his last record jacket. Coltrane is a health addict—doing pushups, scrubbing his teeth, grinding up cabbages.
And Miles Davis. Miles broods in his beautiful town house, teaching his son to box so that he won’t fear white men, raging at every corner of a world that has made him wealthy, a world that is now, in Guinea and the Congo as well as in Alabama and New York, filled with proud little boys who call themselves Miles Davis. He is a man who needs to shout, but his anger is trapped in a hoarse whisper caused by an injury to his vocal cords. The frustration shows.
Onstage, he storms inwardly, glaring at his audience, wincing at his trumpet, stabbing and tugging at his ear. Often his solos degenerate into a curse blown again and again through his horn in four soft beats. But Miles can break hearts.
Without attempting the strident showmanship of most trumpeters, he still creates a mood of terror suppressed— a lurking and highly exciting impression that he may some day blow his brains out playing. No one, Dizzy Gillespie included, does it so well.
Racial woes are at the heart of much bad behavior in jazz, and the racial question is largely a confusion between life and art. Negroes say whites cannot play, when they mean that whites have always taken more money out of jazz than their music warranted. Whites complain of “Crow Jim” when what they mean is that work is scarcer than ever—even for them. The fact is that most of the best jazz musicians are Negroes and there is very little work to go around on either side.
At bars and back tables in the 20 or so good jazz clubs in the country, talented, frustrated musicians—many of them historic figures in jazz—hang around in the hope of hearing their names called, like longshoremen at a midnight shape-up. Junkies who were good players a year ago swoop through the clubs in search of a touch, faces faintly dusty, feet itching, nodding, scratching. The simple jazz fans in the audience sit shivering in the cold fog of hostility the players blow down from the stand. A dig-we-must panic inhibits them from displaying any enthusiasm— which only further convinces the players that their music is lost on the wind.
An Oriental Garden. Monk surveys these sad facts with some bitterness. “I don’t have any musician friends,” he says. “I was friends to lots of musicians, but looks like they weren’t friends to me.” He sometimes makes quiet and kindly gestures—such as sending some money to Bud Powell, caged in a tuberculosis sanatorium outside Paris—but his words are hard. “All you’re supposed to do is lay down the sounds and let the people pick up on them,” he says.
“If you ain’t doing that, you just ain’t a musician. Nothing more to it than that.” Now that his turn has come, Monk cuts a fine figure on the scene. Nellie spends a hysterical hour every evening getting him into his ensemble, and when he steps out the door he looks faintly like an Oriental garden—subtle colors echoing back and forth, prim suits and silk shirts glimmering discreetly. He spends hours standing around with his band, talking in his impenetrable, oracular mode. “All ways know, always night, all ways know—and dig the way I say ‘all ways,’ ” he says, smiling mysteriously. When he is playing anywhere near New York, the baroness comes to drive him home, and they fly off in the Bentley, content in the knowledge that there is no one remotely like either one of them under the sun. They race against the lights for the hell of it, and when the car pulls up in Monk’s block, he skips out and disappears into his old $39-a-month apartment. The baroness then drives home to Weehawken, where she lives in a luxurious bedroom oasis, surrounded by the reeking squalor her 32 cats have created in the other rooms.
Monk spends lazy days at home with Nellie—”layin’ dead,” he calls it. Their two children, Thelonious, 14, and Barbara, 10, are off in boarding schools, and Monk’s slumbers go undisturbed.
Nellie flies around through the narrow paths left between great piles of possessions, tending to his wants. Clothes are in the sink, boxes and packages are on the chairs; Monk’s grand piano stands in the kitchen, the foundation for a tower of forgotten souvenirs, phone books, a typewriter, old magazines and groceries. From his bed Monk announces his wishes (“Nellie! Ice cream!”), and Nellie races to serve; she retaliates gently by calling him “Melodious Thunk” in quiet mutters over the sink.
Nellie and the few other people who have ever known Monk in the slightest all see a great inner logic to his life that dignifies everything he says and does.
He never lies. He never shouts. He has no greed. He has no envy. His message, as Nellie interprets it to their children, is noble and strong. “Be yourself,” she tells them. “Don’t bother about what other people say, because you are you! The thing to be is just yourself.” She also tells them that Monk is no one special, but the children have seen him asleep with his Japanese skullcap on his head or with a cabbage leaf drooping from his lapel, and they know better.
“I try to tell them different,” Nellie says, “but of course I can’t. After all, if Thelonious isn’t special, then what is?”
Taken from the 1966 Columbia album Straight, No Chaser, the one & only Thelonious Sphere Monk. One of the most idiosyncratic piano players in the world of jazz – nobody else sounded like him.
Monk peforming Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” solo, right before he retired.
Monk alone at the piano, doing what he did best…