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.


  1. Like a lot of pianists, Monk tended to sing solfeggio while he played, though a more precise description might be groaning, moaning, and humming. As he got into a song, he became louder, sometimes threatening to compete with the piano. His old mentor, Willie "The Lion" Smith, saw this as a sign of a serious player: "a pianist who growls, hums and talks to the piano is a guy who is trying hard to create something for himself."

  2. In late March 1943, Monk received an "Order to Report for Induction" from Uncle Sam. It was fifteen months since he had been classified 1-A. By now Monk hated the Nazis..yet he was unwilling to enlist. Very few black musicians were eager to leave the music scene to fight another white man's war. Many of Monk's colleagues deliberately set out to change their status from 1A to 4F; or unfit for military service. Some ingested a mixture of benzaedrine nasal spray and coke in order to make their heart sound defective to the draft board's doctors. Other chose to "perform" for the Army psychiatrist, feigning madness, hostility or homosexuality. Dizzie Gillespie reportedly secured his 4 status by portraying himself as an enemy combatant: "Well, look, at this time, at this stage in my life in the United States whose foot has been in my ass? The white man's foot has been in my asshole buried up to his knee in my ass hole!...Now you're speaking of the enemy. You're telling me the German is the enemy. At this point, I can never even remember having met a German. So you put me out there with a gun in my hand and tell me to shoot the enemy, I'm liable to create a case of 'mistaken identity', of who I might shoot." Jazz vocalist Babs Gonzalez painted his fingernails and toenails fire-engine red, curled his hair and went to his neighborhood induction center wearing women's underwear.

    Black resistance to the draft was pervasive. By late 1943, African-Americans comprised 35% of the nation's delinquent registrants, and between 1941 and 1946 more than two thousand black men were imprisoned for not complying with the Selective Service Act.

    Monk made it to the induction center on time, passed the physical, but at the end of the mandatory fifteen minute interview with the Army psychiatrist, his file was stamped "psychiatric reject' and reclassified 4F.. it is entirely possible that that Thelonious got rejected without any effort on his part. Across the nation, young black men were rejected at a much higher rate than whites. The Selective Service Central Examining Board for Neurology and Psychiatry thought that it was especially difficult to diagnose blacks because certain dysfunctional behaviors were considered "naturally" part of their character- "Their poor cultural, occupation and education backgrounds often makes it difficult to decide whether they were defective, preschizoid, or just colored."... Black men fortunate enough to avoid the draft, howver, still faced a kind of war at home...

  3. Held on Monday night, February 8, 1960 at the newly renovated Amato Opera House on Bleecker Street in Greewich Village, the "Jazz Profiles" concert was billed as a celebration of "thirty years of Monk's creativity". It was a kind of Monk retrospective, presented in an unusually respectful manner- no emcee, no warm-up acts, no flash. Almost too respectful, for John S. Wilson, who was ready to relegate Monk's music to the museum. "Monk," he wrote, "has created as body of pieces that have seeped into the bloodstream of jazz, which bear the unmistakable stamp of his extremely personal view of melody and structure and which in the brief span of ten years, has lost their original, jarring, eccentric sound to take on the comfortable conformity of a pair of old shoes." Whitney Balliat found the performance flawless. He praised Rouse and Taylor for their individual creativity and focused on ensemble playing, but saved his strongest veneration for Monk, "a combined chairman of the board, puppeteer, and power behind his own throne, who ceaselessly challenged his musicians. He never lost and he never will." More than anything, the poetry of Monk's motion inspired Balliet's poetic descriptions. He loved how Monk would "wind his body sinuously from side to side in half time to the beat and, his arms horizontally crooked, slowly snap his fingers- a dancer gracefully illustrating a difficult step in delayed motion." The dance continued, even at the keyboard where he might "suddenly bend backward, bring his elbows in, shoot out his forearms, and pluck handfuls of notes from either end of the keyboard, as if he were catching trout with his bare hands."

  4. The Life and Times of Thelonious Monk by Robin D. G. Kelley,; Free Press, N.Y., 2009

    Professor of History and American Studies at U.C.L.A.

  5. There was something about Monk- call it a sense of dignity and self-determination- by which he was detached from the normative social constructions of his time, as manifested in the character and outcome of innumerable encounters with authority (business, law, psychiatry) through-out his life. "yes, sir; no, sir; whatever you say, sir" were not reactions he could easily reproduce though doing so might easily have obviated some very difficult situations. Thus, his "unreliability" as a performer- don't boss or show disrespect to Monk!- and his supposed 'mental illness'- the ironic contempt he showed for psycho-analytic methods- his 'engaged but disengaged' stance towards politics and 'the movement'- though now recognized as 'a beacon' of resistance in those turbulent times. This 'inner core' of his personality was expressed in his focus of the melodic functions of the jazz genre, his drive to achieve ensembles- mentoring the individuality of his sidemen (playing with Monk was always a lesson - 'wrong' notes being an inevitable outcome of 'doing it right') as well as the constant stress he experienced as a successful and popular performer. It seems, for example, that his sense of self even made it difficult for him to think of himself as "a black man" or perhaps even a "jazz musician'. He was very much "doing his own thing."

  6. "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing" as the general principle applied to Monk as a person.