Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thelonious Monk: An Appreciation

I have a choice here between writing about Monk as he is, or as he seems to be, and is generally thought to be. There isn't any great difficulty about it, because both sides are fertile ground; the stories merely differ in plausibility.
-- Music critic PAUL BACON
Most critics and even some of Thelonious Monk's musical contemporaries never knew what to make of a man credited with being one of the founding fathers of bebop and a pianist whose exquisite but unorthodox playing was chockablock with dissonant harmonies, hesitations and deafening silences. They said he was a self-taught mad genius but had no interest in "serious" music. He was naïve, brooding and primitive. He was gifted with a childish vision but exiled from reality.

In fact, Monk was none of those things. He had a formidable musical education and an impressive knowledge and appreciation of classical, popular and other music. He was the patriarch of a large extended family. He was into politics, architecture, nature and history. In other words, very much of the world.

And he had a wicked sense of humor.

Drummer Ben Riley was in the room when a gaggle of reporters pressed Monk before a 1966 concert in Helsinki about his thoughts on classical music and whether or not jazz and classical could come together.

"Everyone wanted him to answer, give some kind of definition between classical and
jazz," recalls Riley, "So he says 'Two is one,' and that stopped the whole room. No one said anything else.

* * * * *
Thelonious Monk (as an adult he added the middle name of Spear for a relative, later changed to Sphere, which he joked meant he could never be square) was born on October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, to Thelonious and Barbara Monk.

His parents were the children of slaves, but despite the deprivations and severe poverty that their forebears had endured before and after Emancipation, as Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley put it, "his family passed down a rich cultural, intellectual , and political legacy -- a legacy that shaped his music and his worldview in both profound and subtle ways."

In 1922, the Monk family, which by then included two boys and two girls, left the South behind, joined the Great Migration and moved to an apartment on West 63rd
Street in Manhattan. (Thelonious Sr. stayed behind in Rocky Mount, briefly joined the family but as a severe asthmatic found the pollution of Manhattan to be unbearable and returned to North Carolina where he lived out his days as a common laborer and then the inmate of a mental hospital.)

Having rejected his mother's wish that he learn the violin, Thelonious Jr. started playing the piano at age six and although he would eavesdrop on his older sister's lessons and later took his own, he was essentially self taught. By age 11 his music teacher, an accomplished classical musician, acknowledged that he was running out of things to teach this young prodigy with perfect pitch.

While Monk adored the classical compositions of
Frédéric Chopin and Sergei Rachmaninoff in particular, it was obvious that jazz was his first love. And while his neighbors included a Who's Who of gifted musicians, including Benny Carter, Russell Procope and James "Bubber" Miley, it was Alberta Simmons, a diminutive ragtime and stride piano player who appears in no jazz encyclopedia nor apparently was ever recorded, who propelled Monk to the next level by teaching him stride techniques and helping him develop his left hand.

Monk dropped out of Stuyvesant High School in his junior year and toured for nearly two years with a quartet put together by an evangelist. "She preached and healed and we played," he said later of his cross-country travels.

By age 19, Monk was back home finding work playing jazz with the encouragement of his mother. Barbara Monk supported her family on meager cleaning woman's wages and would have preferred that her son stick with church music and the classics, but was tirelessly supportive of him.

Monk's first big gig was as house pianist at Minton's Playhouse, a Manhattan nightclub, where he began perfecting his hard-swinging style while participating in legendary after-hours "cutting competitions" that featured many of the leading jazz soloists of the day. This was the crucible for bebop, a style characterized by blazing fast tempos and improvisation based on harmonic structure and melody.

Fellow pianist Mary Lou Williams recalled that inventiveness was vital for bebop musicians because it was common for fellow musicians to incorporate overheard musical ideas into their own compositions without giving them credit.

"So the boppers worked out a music that was hard to steal," Williams explained. "I'll say this for the leeches, though, they tried. I've seen them in Minton's busily writing on their shirt cuffs or scribbling on the tablecloth. And even our own guys, I'm afraid,
did not give Monk the credit he had coming. Why, they even stole his idea of the beret and bop glasses."

In 1944 Monk made his first studio recordings with a quartet led by Coleman Hawkins, the pioneering saxophonist, and his first recordings as a leader in 1947 that showcased his talents as a composer of original improvisational melodies. He married longtime sweetheart Nellie Smith the same year. They had a son, T.S. Monk, who is a jazz drummer, in 1949, and a daughter Barbara was born in 1953.

In August 1951, New York City police searched a parked car occupied by Monk and friend Bud Powell, who along with Monk is considered to have been the greatest jazz pianists.

Police found narcotics presumed to have belonged to Powell. Monk refused to testify against his friend, so the police confiscated his all-important New York City Cabaret Card, meaning that he was unable to play in any New York venue where liquor was served. This severely restricted his ability to perform for several crucial years, and as a result Monk spent most of the early and mid-1950s composing, recording and performing at theaters and out-of-town gigs.

(Monk's own use of mind-altering substances seems to have been limited to alcohol and dexedrine, and he apparently forswore the narcotics like heroin and cocaine that laid low so many of his contemporaries.)

Monk recorded several albums for Blue Note and then Prestige from 1947 to 1954, including collaborations with saxophonist Sonny Rollins and drummer Art Blakey. On Christmas Eve 1954, Monk sat in on a recording session that produced cuts on several classic Miles Davis albums, but the great trumpeter found it difficult to work with Monk because of his idiosyncratic style.

While Monk was now highly regarded by his peers and some critics, his records did not sell well and Riverside bought out his Prestige contract for a mere $108.24.

Monk's commercial breakthrough -- such as it was -- came when Prestige convinced him to record two albums of his interpretations of jazz standards, including Duke Ellington's "Caravan" and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing"). Thus introduced to a wider audience, Monk was able to again record his own music, the result being Brilliant Corners (1956).

After finally having his cabaret card restored, Monk relaunched his New York career with a landmark six-month residency at the Five Spot Cafe beginning in June 1957, leading a quartet with tenor saxophone immortal John Coltrane. Little of this group's music was documented because of contractual problems (Coltrane was signed to Prestige at the time), but 48 year later a long forgotten tape of a 1957 concert was discovered, resulting in the 2005 release of Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. (See sidebar below.)

Coltrane left to rejoin Davis's
seminal septet and Monk did not form another long-term band until June 1958.

Then on October 15, 1958, en route to a gig in Baltimore, Monk and a good friend, Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, a Rothschild dynasty heiress who supported the New York jazz scene, were detained by police in Wilmington, Delaware. When Monk refused to cooperate with them, they beat him.

In 1962 and after a five-year absence from the recording studio, Monk signed to Columbia Records, which released Monk's Dream, his best selling album, and then a series of live albums produced by the great Teo Macero. Accompanying Monk were tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist John Ore and drummer Frankie Dunlop.

Columbia promoted Monk heavily. On February 28, 1964, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine and was featured in the article "The Loneliest Monk." The takeout was long on smart writing and hyperbole and largely failed in trying to part the mists surrounding Monk:

"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 . . .

"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."

Monk's creative output became increasingly limited and few of his albums for Columbia included new tunes. An exception was "Ugly Beauty," his only waltz-time piece.

* * * * *

Monk had all but disappeared from the jazz scene by the mid-1970s and made only a small number of appearances during the final decade of his life although he did continue to "perform" his trademark soft-shuffle, eyes-hooded dance away from the piano at the end of a set.

He went days without speaking even when others were in his presence. Indeed, there had been instances throughout his adult life when he would become uncommunicative and stare out into space, a trait that landed him in Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital for three weeks after a minor car crash in 1957 when he seemed unable to respond to a police officer's questions.

This incident and others were excused by some friends as an example of his trademark eccentricity, but as biographer Kelley writes in noting that Monk's father also suffered from mental illness, "The fact is, his bipolar disorder make it difficult for him to work, lost him jobs, and put undue stress on his family -- especially Nellie. For someone so family-oriented who did not begin to make a decent living until he was over forty, there is nothing romantic or desirable about playing the tortured artist."

Thelonious Monk spent his last six years as a guest in the New Jersey home of Baroness De Koenigswarter, who also had nursed Charlie Parker during his final illness. Monk never played piano although there was one in his room. He finally succumbed to a stroke 28 years ago today with his beloved Nellie Monk holding him in her arms.

This post based in part on Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelley and the Wikipedia entry on Monk.

1 comment:

Thales Jacobi said...

Thelonious Monk was indeed a towering figure and a great Jazz player. Don't you think he sounded somewhat like "Bossa Nova" on the album "Brilliant Corners" (1957)? Especially the last song...