Misterioso | The Nation



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The battle over bop's ownership rights obscures something crucial: the music Monk was writing by the mid-1940s was certifiably weirder than standard bebop. He disliked playing fast, although his fiercest partisans claimed he could play like Art Tatum if he wanted to--just as Picasso could, if he wanted to, paint like a realist. (There is only anecdotal evidence for this claim about Monk, and he doesn't really need it.) In the midst of his angular melodies and deft use of space, Monk's cascades were whole tone flourishes, like a ragged stepchild to Tatum's ornate runs. He got his first record deal with Alfred Lion on the fledgling Blue Note label, and the album delivered on its title, although its anemic sales showed that the genius of modern music didn't always enjoy company. The album--bristling and raw, like its sound quality--showcases Monk standards before they sounded inevitable, or indeed even comprehensible for those just getting used to bebop's breakneck pace. Monk jumped on chestnuts like "Nice Work If You Can Get It" and "April in Paris" and pounded them with his inimitable descending cadences, translating everything he touched into a rough but not quite ready Monkian patois. By the time a companion album appeared in 1952, Monk had recorded most of what would become his songbook. After warming up the listener with a couple of recognizably bebop tunes--up-tempo, with eighth-note melodic lines--and bop-inflected standards, he plays as if he's leaning into the instrument with his whole body, making those eighty-eight keys into percussion instruments. His fingers are splayed, their attack as distinctive and inimitable as anyone's in jazz; within a few bars, he is instantly recognizable to any serious jazz listener.

About the Author

David Yaffe
David Yaffe is the author, most recently, of Bob Dylan: Like A Complete Unknown (Yale). 

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How, between his Minton's apprenticeship in 1941 and his recording debut in 1947, did Monk become Monk? The pianist on those Minton's dates--who can be heard, murkily, on The Early Thelonious Monk--sounds in the neighborhood of Teddy Wilson's swing and James Johnson's stride. In between, he got fired from two illustrious piano spots, avoided military service and recorded some sides with Coleman Hawkins, the most notable swing-era star who could play with the beboppers he so vividly influenced. Monk joined Hawkins's band in 1944 and cut a few 78s with him. While Monk received no royalties for the sessions, they paid off in other ways. The format of the 78 limited each track to around three minutes, and none of Monk's tunes were used. Nevertheless, he made the most of his time. "His economical solos are full of Monkisms: whole-tone scales, dissonant clusters, and quotes from his own compositions," Kelley observes, with the attuned ear of a writer who also plays the piano, which is all but an anomaly in the world of jazz writing for the popular press. As early as 1944, these recordings, available on Thelonious Monk: The Complete Prestige Recordings, reveal Monk's attack, nuances and references as the motifs of "an American original."

Whether Monk was playing the music of Hawkins, Gershwin or Ellington, he acted like he owned it. When, on Genius of Modern Music, he introduced the world to "Thelonious" (a deceptively simple melodic statement), "Ruby, My Dear" (a beautiful tribute to an early flame), "Well, You Needn't," "Monk's Mood," "'Round Midnight" and--an hommage to his former protégé--"In Walked Bud," based on the chords of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," most of the world was not ready. Parker and Gillespie were testing listeners with jazz you weren't supposed to dance to. Monk was offering music even less user-friendly: weird, rough flourishes and runs that sounded ingeniously rhythmic to his exegetes and harsh to his detractors. It's true that, unlike the so-called right-handed pianists of bop, Monk stuck with old-time stride; James Johnson, Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum especially never left his vocabulary. No one hit those keys with such inimitable muscle. But in 1947 it didn't yet sound like mass entertainment. Monk called one of his final compositions "Ugly Beauty." It would be a decade until the world came around. He was in a holding pen, a period his wife, Nellie, called the "'un' years."

When Monk got his cabaret card back in 1957 after spending a few years without it, jazz had already swung from bop to postbop. Charlie Parker had died in 1955, his 34-year-old body ravaged by heroin and booze, and the bold trumpeter Clifford Brown, all of 25 years old, had perished in a car crash the following year. There was room for new gods. John Coltrane had been kicked out of Miles Davis's band for being a junkie, and while he was cleaning up--and kicking the booze he was imbibing to stave off withdrawal symptoms--he joined Monk's band for a six-month engagement. Coltrane would often practice the entire day in search of the perfect sound, replacing his addiction to heroin with devotion to the wood shed, and then he would get on the bandstand with Monk and continue the quest, using all of Monk's harmonic twists and turns to improvise a dense and lovely spiritual. Monk's quartet--alongside Coltrane was Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass and Shadow Wilson on drums--found a home at the Five Spot, a club located on the Bowery years before there was a gentrified neighborhood called the East Village. The Five Spot held poetry readings on Mondays, when Monk was off.

By the time the Five Spot gig ended, Coltrane had returned to Davis's band and would soon be too big to be a sideman, and Monk had strode out of obscurity forever. Many remember the six-month residency as a turning point when Coltrane became a legend. Sonny Rollins, whose star rose before Coltrane's, also remembered Monk as an incomparable teacher. Each of them attempted to play beyond the boundaries of what their instruments were made to do. They tried to re-create Monk's musical sense on an instrument that could only play one note at a time. Nevertheless, they honked where Monk banged, countering his cascades and circuitous phrases with their own runs, with their own personalities, in their own complementary vocabulary. They played with such speed, dexterity and obsession that each set a bar for the tenor saxophone that has still not been superseded half a century later. The grunting seer with the beret at the keys lit the match.

Once Monk saw success, he stopped composing, with the exception of Underground (1968), his final album for Columbia, which contained four new tunes, each of them as witty and idiosyncratic as ever. His illness also started manifesting itself unevenly through silence. There were times in clubs when Monk wasn't just laying out--he was zoning out, staring into space, catatonic; weeks later, he could be his old self again. But silence was also part of Monk's aesthetic, even if, compared with the minimalism of Miles Davis (whom he was instructed not to play behind on a famous and gorgeous 1954 recording of "The Man I Love"), he was more of a maximalist, playing meandering lines and cascading whole tone runs behind his soloists and then often playing rococo countermelodies when he soloed. During much of the '60s Monk was often accused of repeating the same old tunes, even doing the same old dance. But his mind wasn't veering into autopilot. It was still in overdrive. He wasn't repeating; he was perfecting.

His '60s versions of his late '40s masterpieces sound more polished, but they are still brimming with new ideas, new approaches, new variations--even if, at the summit of free jazz, he just continually instructed his sidemen to do nothing but swing. The term has never been empirically defined, but it has something to do with rhythmic flexibility. For Monk, it also had a dead-center aim, a musical kick in the stomach. "Bright Mississippi," recorded on Monk's Dream (1962), reveals Monk in lockstep with the tenor player Charlie Rouse, his near constant musical companion of the 1960s, bashing out quarter notes with what would sound like simplicity if they didn't hit that sweet spot of swing with such force. He even gave swinging orders to bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian when he had them on a pickup date; each of them had a more indirect route to swing in their classic stints with pianist Bill Evans and LaFaro's memorable turn with Ornette Coleman. They were indirect white guys who suddenly had to articulate something--Monk's thing. Both of them must have emerged from their weekend stint like it was boot camp.

You can still hear joy and exuberance on Monk's The London Collection (1971), on which he was accompanied by Art Blakey. Monk hardly sounds like he's on his way out, even though it would be his final major recording session, shared, like his first, with Blakey. A few scattered performances (including Paul Jeffrey on tenor and Toot on drums) early in that decade still had, according to those who were there, the same old fire. And suddenly, it was over. Did he just go too far within himself and never return? Did his treatment for bipolar disorder somehow cure him of the music bug as well? Did he have new musical ideas trapped in a recalcitrant body? Kelley suggests the more prosaic possibility that he was suffering from an enlarged prostate.

Monk had already moved into the spacious home of the Baroness Pannonica "Nica" de Koenigswarter (Parker's old patron) in Weehawken, New Jersey, with a spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline and an even more spectacular number of cats. Monk had become too much for his wife to handle, and Nellie didn't object to his relocating to a mansion across the Hudson. Pannonica inspired a Monk ballad of the same name, but there is no evidence that they were lovers. Nica kept a piano by Monk's room, but Monk almost never touched it. "If his health improved and his manic-depressive cycles were under control," Kelley writes, "why did he stop playing? Having spent the better part of fourteen years tracing Monk's every step, I was not surprised by his decision. In fact, I wondered why he did not retire earlier." Kelley is a judicious biographer, but I find this conclusion difficult to accept. Monk told Sonny Rollins that when all else failed, there was always music. Music was not to be let go, no matter how unsteady things got, and by all accounts in the book, the later performances, except for the final one, were still filled with magic. Maybe with more equilibrium, though, Monk was not inspired to sit down at the piano and feign his most inspired moments--which came, at least in part, from a place of serious illness.

In 2006 a posthumous Pulitzer was bestowed on Monk. Since 1987 the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz has given awards to promising musicians with chops far smoother than those of its namesake. Monk the shrine will continue to be polished. Monk the man is only beginning to be understood, and Kelley's book admirably helps us appreciate the pleasures and pathos of an exceedingly heavy head case. But no matter how much Monk is demystified, he will still be weird and there will still be new things to learn just by trying to puzzle him out on the page or at the piano.

Monk liked to wear a formidable ring bearing his name when he played, an encumbrance that no pianist in his right mind would want to burden a hand with. While he was flashing his ring for the world to see, from his own perspective he saw something else. "KNOW" said the ring, more or less, to the audience. "MONK" was the reply when he saw it himself.

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