Friday, January 29, 2010
Thelonious Monk by Robin D.G. Kelley
Monk's refusal to play and his reluctance to leave his room were regarded by virtually everyone close to him as symptomatic of his mental illness. But as Nica said, his mind worked; he was alert, alive and still incredibly witty. In March of 1976, Thelonious happened to be listening to a special broadcast by Columbia University's radio station, WKCR, dedicated to his music. A guest expert began droning on about how Monk created extraordinary music, in spite of "playing the wrong notes on the piano." Perturbed, Monk dialed the Columbia switchboard and left a message to "tell the guy on the air, ' The piano ain't got no wrong notes.'
So to label Monk's reclusive behavior as evidence of deep depression is a little too simple, especially since his mental and physical health improved dramatically during this period. So why did he stop playing? Having spent the better part of fourteen years tracing Monk's every step, I am not surprised by his decision. In fact, I wonder why he didn't retire earlier. Consider the final years of his working career: his record label dropped him, he could barely sustain a working band, the money was inadequate, he was practically reduced to opening for rock and R&B bands, he endured unremitting criticism for playing the same music, he lost all inspiration to compose, the lithium treatments deadened his senses and slowed his creative drive, and his ongoing battle with an enlarged prostate made performing an ordeal. And his old friends kept dying. So why should he feel like playing? His siblings were among the few loved ones who understood and accepted his decision. During one of his many visits, Thomas asked, "Brother, what should I tell everybody? They want to know why you don't play anymore? You want me to tell them you retired?' And he said, 'Yes, tell them I retired.'" Marion would come over every so often and take walks with Thelonious. He made it clear to her that "he didn't feel like playing or appearing in front of the public.."
Today the music world accepts Thelonious Monk as an American master. He has been the subject of award-winning documentaries, scholarly studies, prime-time television tributes, and in 2006 was awarded a posthumous Pultizer Prize for his contribution to jazz. His compositions constitute the core of jazz repertory and are performed by artists from many different genres. "Round Midnight", "Straight, No Chaser," "Well, You Needn't,", "Ruby, My Dear, " among others, have become bona-fide jazz standards; no self-respecting jazz musician today can get a job or participate in a jam session without knowing these tunes.
Yet, for all the accolades and formal recognition, for all the efforts to canonize Monk and place his bust on the mantel alongside Bach and Beethoven, we must remember that Monk was essentially a rebel. To know the man and his music requires digging Monk- out of the golden dustbins of posterity, out of the protected cells of museums,- and restoring him to a tradition of sonic disturbance that forced the entire world to take notice. He broke the rules and created a body of work and a sound no one has been able to duplicate.
If I have learned anything from this fourteen year adventure, it is that duplicating Monk's sound has never been the point. "Play yourself!" he'd say. "Play yourself" lay at the core of Monk's philosophy; he understood it as art's universal injunction. He demanded originality in others and he embodied it in everything he did- in his piano technique, in his dress, in his language, his humor, in the way he danced, in the way he loved his family and raised his children, and above all in his compositions. Original did not mean being different for the hell of it. For Monk, to be original meant reaching higher than one's limits, striving for the startling and memorable, and never being afraid to make mistakes. Original is not always mastery, nor does it always yield success. But it is very hard work.