Friday, January 29, 2010

'Melodius Thunk' in the News by Robin D.G. Kelley

The Monk story came entirely through Barry Farrell's initiative. Recently hired as Time magazine's music writer, the editors wanted him to write a cover story featuring George Szell of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, which Farrell wasn't keen to do. He negotiated: he would write it in exchange for a major cover story on a jazz musician. The editors initially proposed Ray Charles and the Miles Davis, but nixed Charles because of his drug problems and Miles Davis was just too incorrigible. To Farrell's great pleasure, they settled on Thelonious Monk- always his first choice.

Farrell was one of the regulars at the Five Spot, and had just penned a piece in Time casting a critical eye on the folks who populated the "Home of Thelonious Monk". He noted rather disdainfully how Monk "will spend the whole night horsing around on his piano while his side men accompany him with all the enthusiasm of cops frisking drunks. On other nights he plays brilliantly and the sidemen follow with insight and devotion- but the applause is just the same, Monk's audience is far too devoted to him to worry about his music."

Once his managing editor gave him the green light, Farrell approached Monk every chance he got, "mostly walking around outside the Five Spot...or sitting in some dark bar at 2 a.m." In time Thelonious and Nellie came to trust Farrell. He visited Monk's home a couple of times and learned that he and Thelonious shared some things in common besides a sense of style and devotion to music. Farrell loved basketball, had visited Japan, and enjoyed a hit of reefer every so often. And the man was hip- twenty-eight, handsome, strawberry blond hair, he smoked Gauloise cigarettes and, like his subject, dressed stylishly. "Women loved him," proclaimed writer John Gregory Dunne. "He was that rare writer who looked the way a writer should look." For the next two or three months, he would become Monk's shadow.

Farrell had finished conducting some thirty interviews by early fall and as he spent the next few weeks distilling his observations into a 5,000 word essay, Thelonious had to take time out to sit for his cover portrait. The artist, Russian painter Boris Chaliapin, grew frustrated with Monk because during the course of four sittings he always fell asleep. Chaliapin called it strange; I would call in exhaustion. At the time Monk was preparing his big band for an appearance at Lincoln Center's newly completed Philharmonic Hall, one of the year's most anticipated events in the jazz world.

Farrell's Time cover story was slated to run on November 29, 1963, as was Monk's appearance at the Philharmonic but on November 22, President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot in Dallas, sending shock waves throughout the nation and world. The concert and the story on Monk was pushed back and Time substituted a color portrait of the newly sworn-in President Lyndon Baines Johnson, reportedly destroying three million copies they had already printed bearing Chaliapin's portrait of Monk.

The story on Monk ran on February 28, 1964. Farrell describes a strange, reclusive genius, with an eccentric taste for hats, little connection to reality, a childlike demeanor, who depends on women to care for him (his wife Nellie and Nica-Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter), and, often, in the same breath, portrays a family man, honest and pure, deserving of his long waited recognition. The writing was eloquent but somewhat schizophrenic. He quoted Monk vehemently protesting the "mad genius" label, and then he went on to reproduce it by recounting incidents in which he had been confined to mental institutions or speculating on his drug use. If Thelonious, Nellie, and his manager Harry Colomby had hoped the article would help mainstream Monk's image, they were disappointed. In one particularly damaging passage, Farrell wrote: "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."

By the end of the piece, Farrell took an interesting turn, suggesting that Monk isn't so colorful or controversial at all, especially compared to the brooding Miles Davids, the mystical Sonny Rollins, or the volatile Charles Mingus. Here he hit on one of the main points of the piece: Monk is a good guy because he is not caught up in the "racial woes at the heart of much bad behavior in jazz." Farrell was referring to a recent Time editorial on "Crow Jim" in jazz, and black artists who criticized whites like Dave Brubeck and Stan Kenton for exploiting "their music", and who employed jazz as a vehicle for black protest. Like most white liberals uncomfortable with rising black militancy, Farrell felt betrayed by the strident racial politics of Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite or the "angry" sounds of the "New Thing". Monk, much to Farrell's relief, was above the fray.

In some respects, Farrell had little new to say. What is different from most stories about Monk dating back to the late 1940s is that he pushed racial politics to the foreground. Monk's story isn't just about Monk. For some he was a symbol of black genius; for others he was the last bastion of color-blindness in an increasingly polarized world. One reader, self-identified as "an aspiring young Negro artist raised in the ghetto", praised the article for its "authenticity" and for illuminating the "forces that shape the Monk-type personality." Another reader challenged the article's characterization of Monk's stage behavior, arguing that it is "vital to the dignity, humor and discipline of his music." Still others read it as classic racial stereotyping. Critic Ralph J. Gleason called the piece "revolting" and "libelous to jazz," and castigated Time for turning Monk into "the symbol of the native genius...sweaty and bizarre, so as not to ruffle the preconceptions of Time-thought. While praising Farrell for writing "an accurate, well-rounded portrait in depth of a complex personality," Leonard Feather nevertheless concluded that the essay might actually harm jazz and race relations. To middle America, the Negro jazz musician comes across as both drug-addicted and a clownish buffoon donning a funny hat. "Not too long ago such verbs as shuffle and grin were part of the Southern whites' primitive concept of the Negro. Are we to return to that also?". Feather implicitly placed some of the blame on Monk for the way he behaved in public, suggesting that more deserving musicians were overlooked because they have "never enjoyed what is presumably Time's idea of a rich, full, adventurous, newsworthy life. [Art] Tatum and [Jack] Teagarden never wore funny hats; [Errol] Garner, [Count] Basie, and [Oscar] Peterson do not get up and dance in the middle of their performances*; Gillespie does not arrive every day at a brand-new pharmaceutical discovery."

To black nationalists and other radicals, the Time article constituted an attack on one of their heroes. Writer Theodore Pontiflet published a sharply worded salvo in the Harlem-based Liberator magazine criticizing what he considered Farrell's obsession with Monk's relationship with the baroness. The implications of the Time piece, he argued, not only rendered black women to "the background reduced to the domestic chores" but "warns white America that in these days of talking integration and on the fatal eve of passing a watered-down civil rights bill, they should remember that it could mean more of their daughter will be bringing home the occasional black genius." Pontiflet suggested that Monk was unaware of his own exploitation , thus unwittingly reinforcing the dominant image of him as naive and child-like. Throughout the entire ordeal- he writes, "Thelonious Monk and his wife Nellie remain pure as honey. The patron baroness. She was part of the deal- a bitter part of the sweet."

Ironically, the left-wing Pontiflet shared much in common with the right-wing National Review critic Ralph de Toledano. They both treated Monk as a kind of idiot savant, unaware of the world around him, and they both believed he embodied their political position. De Tokledano praised Monk for not confusing music with politics. "Like most of the best jazzmen... he doesn't believe that he must make is art a sledge hammer to pound away at political themes." And yet, in spite de Toledano's plea for color-blindness in jazz, he nonetheless embraced a racialized construction of jazz as more physical and emotional than cerebral. He chided Monk for being too cerebral, for not tapping into his "soul", and for removing any sense of "dance" from his music! In other words, while Monk is not too black politically, musically de Toledano finds he's not black enough.

And what about Monk? What did he think about Farrell's story? According to Ben Riley, the article "made Thelonious feel very good about himself because I think finally he understood that there were a number of people very interested in what he was playing and what he was doing." But he did have complaints and used the occasion of another major profile, by Lewis Lapham for the Saturday Evening Post, to challenge Farrell and other journalists who had painted him as a crazy eccentric. "That's a drag picture they're paintin' of me, man," he told Lapham just a couple of weeks after the Time story appeared. "A lot of people still think I'm nuts or somethin'...but I dig it, man; I can feel the draft. He even hinted that his sudden fame may have more to do with his image than his music. "I was playing the same stuff twenty years ago, man...and nobody was painting any portrait."

Harry Colomby also used the occasion to do some damage control. Besides emphasizing the fact that Monk wasn't one of those angry musicians who hated whitey, he portrayed his client as a hardworking musician who went straight home to Nellie every night and cared for his family. Colomby told Lapham, "He's so straight, it makes you nervous." Lapham himself took a swipe at Farrell, insisting that Monk was neither crazy nor eccentric but rather "an honest man in a not-so-honest world... Monk never learned to tell the convenient lies or make customary compromises. That he should have been proclaimed the complete and perfect hipster is an absurd irony." And yet, for all his defense of Monk's sanity, Lapham fell for the oldest myth of all: "An emotional and intuitive man, possessing a child's vision of the world, Monk talks, sleeps, eats, walks or dances as the spirit moves him."

For a so-called "child", Monk was tactful and shrewd enough to keep his criticisms of Time oblique. He understood the importance of publicity and did not want to burn any bridges. He did have a complaint about the piece that he was willing to share with the public: he insisted that Nellie never called him "Melodius Thunk". "That's a lie, man. I never heard my wife call me that. It's those reporters, man, you can't trust them."


  1. *For an emerging avant-garde experimenting in conceptual and performance art, Monk's spontaneous dance, combined with his drinking during and between sets, embodied the perfect expression of pleasure and excess. Dance historian Sally Banes traces what she calls the rise of avant-garde performance and the "effervescent body" to Greenwich Village in 1963. I suspect Monk's own "effervescent body" spinning and lurching at the Five Spot contributed to the downtown artists' search for bodily freedom. The club's culture and reputation contributed as well, for at the Five Spot performance could just as easily erupt from the audience as on stage. For example, one night Monk was so late getting t the gig that a young man in the audience got up on stage, "whipped out a cordless electric razor and gave himself a full barbering."...For Monk dancing and spinning about on the stage, and his inimical piano playing style, was just not because he was feeling good and digging the music. It was a matter of stagecraft, and as he got older he understood that spectacle sells and eccentricity makes good copy. His stage antics went over well in most parts of Europe, Canada and especially Japan.

  2. It now seems likely that I first became aware of Monk through this "Time" magazine article, I think my parents discontinued their prescription to the "Saturday Evening Post" when we moved to St.Louis from Boston that year. I remember forming my opposition to the war in Vietnam by reading reports in "Time" in subsequent years. I was sixteen in 1964 but already politically engaged as a friend and I had campaigned for the election of John F. Kennedy by printing business-type cards ('Vote Kennedy') and sticking them under wind-shield wipers on our way home from school. I also heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak at a fund-raiser for the S.C.L.C. at our local church in St.Louis around this time. I was, however, unaware of the various critical responses generated by the "Time" article. My father was testifying as an educational expert for the N.A.A.C.P in school desegregation cases but my parents but were "white liberals uncomfortable with rising black militancy". Neither were fans of jazz.

  3. The Life and Times of Thelonious Monk by Robin D.G. Kelley, Free Press, 2009