Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Beginning of P.C. in America by Robin Kelley

In late 1958, after Thelonious Monk's bust for crossing the color line to get a glass of water at a hotel in Delaware and the inevitable revocation of his cabaret license by the N.Y.C Police Department, he had to wonder if his moment in the sun was over. If so, his fears were quickly allayed when his manager Harry Colomby ( a high school teacher in Queens) called with the news that the CBS television show The Twentieth Century wanted to film Monk's band at the Five Spot. Hosted by Walter Cronkite, The Twentieth Century was a prime-time half hour documentary program that aired on Sunday nights. Relying mostly on archival footage, the program was designed to examine important historical events but twice a year it aired a one-hour special meant to examine contemporary issues. These one-hour specials were produced by Stephen Fleischman, a former Communist still sympathetic to the Left who somehow dodged the worst of McCarthyism. Fleischman had already produced a couple of controversial episodes, including an expose of prison conditions in America. Now he set out to explore the culture and attitudes of college students- the generation narrator Walter Cronkite labeled "the most baffling in our history". Calling it "Generation Without a Cause," the bulk of the segment was devoted to interviews with white students at Rutgers University who described themselves as conformists concerned about marriage, family, home ownership, and obtaining a good job. Fleischman then wanted to juxtapose the "typical" college student with the "Beat Generation", young people whose posture was one of political detachment but engagement with matters of art and culture. Jazz was their music and the Five Spot their hangout.

Monk must have found the filming itself rather baffling. CBS bused in about eighty-odd students from Rutgers who filed into the Five Spot around 8:00 a.m. They were almost entirely white and very preppy- indeed, when the camera pans the room the first time all we see is white faces. As Harry Colomby put it, "They looked like an advertising agent put them together. All white. They politely applauded. It was like the beginning of political correctness." Although the students sat attentively, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, nodding their heads silently to Monk's "Rhythym-a-ning", they did not look like the usual Five Spot crowd. Missing was the clubs famous diversity of race, age, and status. The band looked exhausted if not uninterested, probably because they had been up all night. At one point, the director had a young man come on the bandstand and read some bad poetry ("Sometimes, I'm really convinced/we are sterile dishes/ watching with ever beginning patience/ germs/ to see if they will grow") while Monk played a rather somber rendition of "Pannonica".

As Thelonious and his band wailed away in the opening clip of the documentary, Walter Cronkite described the current generation of youth as "silent, tranquil, beat." For the next fifteen minutes, they listened to academic experts and students describe the new generation as materialistic and selfish, before returning to the Five Spot to meet the "Beats" and hear Monk. (Unless one noticed the sign over the bar, the un-hip would not have known who was playing since Monk's name is never mentioned.) The scene was surreal; the camera pans from the bandstand to the bar where we "eavesdrop" on a conversation between a young woman defending modern jazz and a young man criticizing it: "I think it's going too far. I enjoy something like Turk Murphy, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Johnny Smith Quartet- something I can relax and enjoy." They asked the poet who had just performed what he thought jazz meant for his generation. "To me it means something interesting, a a different kind of sound." And then the camera cuts to Monk jamming away, arms crossed, lips pursed, and intensely focused. The next shot pans the Five Spot, capturing a sea of white faces and their expressions as they contemplate the music. Walter Cronkite concludes: "Nowhere have we found any indication of this generation having a new movement or cause of its own." Senator William J. Fulbright of Arkansas has the last word, criticizing youth for "conformity, self-centeredness, and complacency."

Now Thelonious was neither a news hound nor an activist, but as he and is wife Nellie watched the show they were well aware of the changing world around them. They knew, for example, that young people in Fulbright's own state faced mobs in order to integrate Little Rock's Central High School, and that the distinguished Senator had opposed Brown v. Board of Education and participated in filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957. And most African-Americans were aware of the Youth March for Integrated Schools in Washington, D.C.....There was, indeed, a generation with a cause; they just didn't look like the kids CBS portrayed at the Five Spot.


*Regulars at the Five Spot included painters Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, Alfred Leslie, Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, Jack Tworkov, Mike Goldberg, Roy Newell, Howard Kanovitz, and writers Jack Kerouac, Ted Joans, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara and Amiri Baraka ( when he was still Leroy Jones.) Ted Joans- poet, painter, sometimes jazz vocalist and trumpeter- was probably the first black Five Spot regular. While he found the Five Spot friendly and hospitable, the neighborhood was not. "It was dangerous. The Italians did not want any 'spades' in their territory, so we had to be careful. Don't let them catch you with a white woman! I used to carry a blackjack and a napkin filled with hot pepper to throw in their eyes in case I was attacked. Baraka took to carrying" a lead pipe in a manila envelope, the envelop under my arm like a good messenger, not intimidating but never-the-less ready." While most working class residents were hostile to all bohemian artists, "the general resentment the locals felt toward white bohemians", mused Jones, "was quadrupled at the sight of the black species."

1 comment:

  1. Thelonious Monk; The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelley , Free Press, 2009