Meet the Eccentric Master of Jazz Melody
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Thelonious Monk is the gateway jazz artist.
By Keith Murphy
The call came out of the blue to Harry Colomby, the former high school teacher and longtime manager of jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. It was a Time magazine writer named Barry Farrell conveying some remarkable news in a laughing, offhand manner: “We’re interested in doing a cover story on Monk for Time.”
Colomby’s initial reaction was excitement: Monk, his friend and brilliant if gloriously eccentric client, would join Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck as the only jazz artists up to that point to land such a prestigious honor with what was arguably the most influential magazine in the world.
And then a wave of fear hit. “I thought … How is he going to act? … What condition is he in?” Colomby recalled in the 2009 biography Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, by Robin Kelley. “From that moment on, my stomach was in knots.”
With Monk, we are talking about one of the great composers of melody of all time.
Ethan Iverson, pianist, recording artist and jazz historian
Colomby’s apprehension was well-warranted. Yes, Monk, the left-field visionary who was viewed as the leader of jazz’s avant-garde new school, was finally being recognized as one of the genre’s leading artists. His dreamscape-like work highlighted by such classics as “ ’Round Midnight,” “Straight, No Chaser,” “Ruby, My Dear” and “Monk’s Dream,” would go on to become jazz standards. Yet depending on the day, the unpredictable Monk could be effortlessly charming, a legit funnyman or a nonfunctioning recluse.
Despite Colomby’s trepidation, the Monk cover was scheduled for the issue that would hit newsstands Friday, Nov. 29, 1963. Farrell conducted his interviews, photographer Boris Chaliapin shot a portrait of a natty Monk and the issue headed off to the printing plant.
Then came Dallas. Time shredded its Monk copies and, on that somber Friday, ran an issue with the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, on the cover. It wasn’t until Feb. 28, 1964, that the magazine published the issue showcasing Monk.
That delay gave more time for writers to debate the improbable cover story titled “The Loneliest Monk” before it was unveiled to the public. Farrell showered emphatic reverence for the in-demand genius, who after years of money woes was making a more than decent living. He had signed a three-album deal in 1962 with Columbia Records and was cashing in on sold-out tours in Europe with his white-hot quartet — Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, John Ore on bass and Frankie Dunlop on drums. Farrell praised Monk for getting the “serious recognition he deserved all along.”
Other critics who also championed Monk weren’t buying it. Music writer LeRoi Jones, who went on to become outspoken literary figure Amiri Baraka, found it strange that the good folks at Time had the audacity to believe that they had somehow discovered Monk’s greatness.
Celebrated jazz critic Leonard Feather, in a response published in DownBeat magazine, balked at Farrell’s nods to Monk’s alleged drug use — “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 …” — as further trafficking in stereotypes denigrating a race of people who have “suffered not decades but centuries of damage.”
Monk was oblivious to the cultural and racial tug-of-war. “I’m famous. Ain’t that a bitch?” he once mused in typical quirky Monk-ism fashion. But Monk’s ascent to timeless jazz great had been turbulent.
With his subterranean hipster image (pointy goatee, dark shades and assorted headgear that included his trademark Chinese skullcap) and compositions brimming with improvised dissonance and playful melodicism, Monk was at times seen through a polarizing lens. Indeed, before his 1957 breakthrough at the New York jazz club Five Spot, the bebop innovator was pegged, at best, as an entertaining oddity and, at worst, as a harebrained punch line lacking taste and technique.
“Two more sides by the pianist who did NOT invent bop, and generally plays bad, though interesting, piano,” dismissed a 1949 DownBeat review of Monk’s “Misterioso” and “Humph.” Still, among his peers, Monk was respected as an original. The great, genre-defying trumpeter Miles Davis once joked about the pianist’s off-key phrasing on one of his seminal numbers, “Monk plays the wrong changes to ‘Round Midnight.’ ”
“With Monk we are talking about one of the great composers of melody of all time,” pianist, recording artist and jazz historian Ethan Iverson says of the man he calls the ultimate gateway jazz artist. “And Miles also had a strong vision of the way the rhythm section worked in a band. And Monk did not fit that vision. Monk was too idiosyncratic in his playing. But he still was accessible to the public because his music was swinging.”
Growing up, Monk’s family had little money, but somehow his supportive mother, Barbara, bought a baby grand Steinway piano. The quirky 11-year-old showed an early fascination with music, taking piano lessons. At 13 he was already playing at bar and grills in his San Juan Hill neighborhood on New York’s West Side, developing his infectiously trademark whimsical-meets-melancholy sound.
During his early playing days, he was often late to gigs, but when he showed up, musicians around the Big Apple took it as a challenge to “cut up” with the out-of-the-box rebel. They knew that, ever since Monk’s arrival in 1939 as the house pianist at Harlem’s famous Minton’s, he had always stood out among his jazz brethren even as he struggled to make a living.
By the late ’50s, Monk found himself as the reigning king of the critical-darling set. “This is really a mood album, the kind of mood that envelops corners that can be called brilliant but are more inimitable than that increasingly indiscriminate adjective might connote,” praised powerful DownBeat jazz critic Nat Hentoff in a rare five-star review of Monk’s 1957 breakthrough album Brilliant Corners.
Flash forward to Monk’s Time coronation. The dice-rolling maverick who would go down as the original Afro-Futurist — an otherworldly bridge for fellow-traveler weirdos like Sun Ra and George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic outfit — was now solidified as a jazz immortal.
An undisclosed bout with mental illness and health issues would all but silence him after the mid-’70s. But when Thelonious Monk died on Feb. 17, 1982, there was an outpouring of love and respect for an artist celebrated as a national treasure. Years later, the posthumous accolades continue to pour in: a 1993 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award; a 2006 Pulitzer Prize. Not bad for a mercurial oddball.
Thelonious Monk — “Melodius,” “Mad Monk,” “The High Priest of Bebop”
- Vitals: born: Oct. 10, 1917, Rocky Mount, North Carolina; died: Feb. 17, 1982, Englewood, New Jersey
- Instrument: Piano
- Standards: “ ’Round Midnight” (1944), “Ruby, My Dear” (1947), “Straight, No Chaser” (1951), “Blue Monk” (1954)
- Quirks: Rarely spoke to audiences; spontaneous dancing during horn solos
- Another take: Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, directed by Charlotte Zwerin (1989)
- Keith Murphy, Keith “Murph” Murphy spars with brazen hip-hop moguls, Hollywood rebels, revered thespians, redemption-seeking pugilists and more. His work has appeared in VIBE, The New York Post, Billboard magazine, Essence and The Root. He’s a frequent commentator on CNN, Fox News, VH1 and A&E Biography.Contact Keith Murphy