"The George Washington of Bebop"
(September 1947-August 1948) …. Part 2
On the subject of researching and writing his book on Monk, Robin D.G. Kelley closes his work by stating:
“If I’ve 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 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 something startling and memorable, and never being afraid to make mistakes. Originality is not always mastery, nor does it always yield success. But it is very hard work.” [p.451]
You know, anybody can play a composition like ’Body and Soul’ and use far-out chords and make it sound wrong. It’s making it sound right that’s not easy. - Monk
© -Robin D. G. Kelley, reproduced with permission. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Here is the continuation and conclusion of Robin D.G. Kelley’s tenth chapter from his comprehensive and authoritative book on Thelonious Monk’s life, times and music.
The editorial staff would once again like to express its appreciation to Professor Kelley for permission to feature this selection from his excellent book on JazzProfiles.
By way of differentiation, unlike the photographic images that were used in Part 1 of this presentation which were of the time period that forms the chapter’s chronological focus, some of those appearing in this second segment are from images taken later in Monk’s life.
Throughout his career, Monk was a fascinating photographic subject and the many intriguing images of him form a perfect complement to his captivating and absorbing music. The photographic lenses of such artists as William Claxton, Bob Parent, Chuck Stewart, Lee Tanner and Francis Wolff, among others, certainly thought that this was the case.
“ became the year Thelonious Monk was invented. In fewer than two hundred words, Lorraine Lion—building on William Gottlieb—established the lens through which the entire world would come to see Monk. Elusive, mysterious, strange, eccentric, weird, genius—these were the foundational adjectives that formed the caricature of Monk. It was Lion who dubbed Thelonious the "High Priest of Bebop,"57 re-presenting him to jazz audiences as a kind of mystic. His reputation for lateness, unreliability, and drunkenness only added to his image as an eccentric, as did stories of his sleeplessness and nocturnal adventures in search of someone's piano to play. Neither Lion nor Gottlieb nor anyone else seems to have considered that these episodes, or his fits of obsessive creativity, could have been early signs of manic depression. Monk's behavior was weird and made good copy. Blue Note's marketing campaign marked the beginning of Monk's iconization, his transformation into what critic Nat Hentoff called "a stock cartoon figure for writers of Sunday supplement pieces about the exotica of jazz." Monk became a novelty, marketed to the public for his strangeness—his name, his music, his bodily gestures, his famous non-verbal communication, his unpredictability. "Pictures of Monk in dark glasses and goatee," Hentoff later observed, "would usually be captioned 'Mad Monk' or 'The High Priest of Bop.' Exaggerated stories of his personal life were the 'substance' of the articles. There was no attempt to discuss the nature or seriousness of his musical intentions. Monk became part of the Sabbath sideshow of resurrected murderers, celebrated divorce cases, and Elsa Maxwell."58
Lion scored a huge coup when she convinced Ralph Ingersoll, the silk-stocking Communist and founding editor of the liberal newsmagazine PM, to run a lengthy profile of Thelonious in February of 1948.59 Ingersoll assigned the piece to arts and culture critic Ira Peck. Peck wasn't really a jazz guy so much as a very smart dabbler in the arts. 60 As a feature writer for PM for the last five years, Peck had not yet encountered anyone like Monk. At their initial meeting in Monk's apartment, Thelonious said so little that Peck was ready to abandon the project, until Lorraine Lion insisted that she be present for the interview.61 Monk eventually opened up, offering honest criticism and bold claims about his contribution to the music, but not much else. Much of Peck's story consisted of detailed descriptions of Monk's apartment, commentary from friends, acquaintances, and critics of the new music, and, unsurprisingly, Blue Note press material. Before he could talk about Monk, however, Peck had to make the case for bebop as high art, particularly for a readership more accustomed to opera, symphonies, and art museums than modern jazz. He opened with the acknowledgment that critics "have called [bebop] a kind of 'surrealist' jazz and have drawn analogies between it and the works of Picasso and Dali. Musically, it has been likened to the works of Stravinsky, whom most be-bop musicians are known to admire." After emphasizing its dissonant sonorities and the "breakneck pace" of its rhythms, he went on to quote classical pianist Eugene List, who said "Be-bop is to jazz ... as atonality is to classical music. It uses the enlarged harmony structure of jazz but is more cerebral than emotional. I like it. Any intellectual exercise in music is fun if you want to take your mind off anything. I wish I could play first-rate be-bop."62 Monk himself reinforced Peck and List's characterization of modern jazz by making a spirited case for experimental music in opposition to "commercial jazz." Bebop's detractors, Monk argued, "don't understand the music and in most cases never heard it. Weird means something you never heard before. It's weird until people get around to it. Then it ceases to be weird." "It's the modern music of today," he added. "It makes other musicians think—just like Picasso. It has to catch on."63
Without elaborating on the music, however, Peck falls back on Lion's familiar description of Monk's odd behavior. He hardly sleeps, eats when he feels like it, "wanders around from one friend's house to another, or from one club to another, working out his ideas on the piano," and still lives at home with his mother. For this part of the story, Peck reused the testimony of Teddy Hill. While acknowledging his genius, Hill described him as "undependable," adding that "Monk ... is so absorbed in his music he appears to have lost touch with everything else." Hill claimed Monk could barely hold a conversation without his mind wandering and that he was known to forget his girlfriend in the club. Peck's portrait also relied on anonymous friends. One "friend" described a "girl that idolizes him," lighting his cigarettes and whatnot, but in whom Monk showed very little interest. "He tells me that women are a 'heckle' sometimes. He doesn't want to be tied down to anything except his music." The woman in question lived in Monk's building and dropped by "frequently to clean his room and wash his dishes."64 The anonymous informant may have been speaking of Marion, who was still living in the Phipps Houses a couple of doors down, and came by often to help her mother by straightening up.65 For Nellie, it must have been a difficult thing to read.
For all the anecdotes and extravagant description, the story never lost its core theme: Monk was bebop's true originator. This time Monk sheepishly accepted the idea. He told Peck that the new music "just happened. I just felt it. It came to me. Something was being created differently without my trying to." He explained that what Dizzy and Bird were playing in 1948 was not what he originally worked out at Minton's. Monk spoke candidly about not getting much recognition but admitted, "I don't get around as much. . . . I'm sort of underground in bebop." And he added that one of his biggest problems was finding musicians capable of playing his songs. Teddy Hill was quoted again: "Monk seemed more like the guy who manufactured the product rather than commercialized it. Dizzy has gotten all the exploitation because Dizzy branched out and got started. Monk stayed right in the same groove."66
Although it seems unlikely that Lorraine Lion or these journalists intended to pit Monk against Gillespie, some tension did exist between them, or at least some competition over their respective narratives of bebop's origins. Just a few weeks before the PM article appeared, Dizzy announced that he was writing a book on bebop with the assistance of Leonard Feather. The article appeared in the black-owned California Eagle, and it characterized Gillespie as "the creator of this newest jazz idiom."67
In the end, Monk and the Blue Note crew were pleased with the article. Miss Barbara was not. She was quite upset with Peck's colorful, yet degrading, description of her apartment—not to mention the accompanying photograph. He wrote about how her soot-darkened walls and worn-down linoleum "contrasted incongruously with a large new, shiny white refrigerator." As a proud, dignified Southern black woman, such language was embarrassing. Her complaints to
fell on deaf ears, largely because Lorraine could not understand the deeply ingrained sense of modesty and pride working-class black women possessed. For women who made a living cleaning other people s houses and offices, keeping a clean and orderly house of their own took on great importance.68 Lorraine simply dismissed her concerns and practically chastised her for failing to recognize the importance of such publicity: "Look, Mrs. Monk. Your son is going to be very famous. This is just the beginning. You will have to get used to this."69 Lorraine
Lorraine Lion sent out another round of press kits just in time for the release of Monk’s second 78 (Blue Note 543), with "Well, You Needn't" and "'Round ." The Lions had the bright idea to invite a select group of writers to a party at their
Greenwich Village apartment to listen to the test pressings of the latest disc. Among the invitees was the new managing editor of The Record Changer, Orrin Keepnews. He had been hired by Bill Grauer, his former classmate, who had purchased the record collectors' newsletter in order to turn it into a first-rate, modern jazz magazine. A native New Yorker, Keepnews earned a bachelor's degree in English from Columbia University in 1943, served in the Pacific theater as a radar operator on B-29 bombers, then returned to school to pursue a graduate degree. To make ends meet, he took a job as a junior editor at Simon & Schuster. When he took over the editorship of The Record Changer, he was still working and going to school. But he could not resist the chance to write about what he loved—jazz.70 Columbia
The Lions had read Keepnews's first column with great interest, and they had heard about him from their friend Paul Bacon, whom Grauer had hired as the magazine's artistic director. They thought that if Keepnews could only meet Thelonious he might be persuaded to write a piece on their newest artist. "I took the bait and swallowed it whole," Keepnews confessed. "And with the arrogance of ignorance I took Monk off into a corner and proceeded to do an interview with him." He was told he couldn't get a complete sentence out of the High Priest, but he did. "I had a lovely time talking to him, frankly."71
The article, which appeared in the April issue of The Record Changer, actually focused on the music, not Monk's eccentricities or behavior. Rather than fold Monk into the bebop school, Keepnews argued that his approach to modern piano, particularly in an ensemble context, was in a class of its own. He had his own school, so to speak, anchored in a strong rhythmic style and possessed of "a sly, wry, satiric humor that has a rare maturity." He wasn't too impressed with Monk's horn players (except for Danny Quebec West), whom he found "too steeped in standard bebop; their solos sometimes fail to follow the complex pattern being established by the rhythm unit, and the ensembles tend, on occasion, to fall into standard bop cliches."72 Nevertheless, Keepnews found more musicality and coherence in Monk's recordings than in most modern jazz. Monks music "has a feeling of unity, warmth, and purpose that contrasts sharply with the emotionless, jittered-up pyrotechnics of
Fifty-Second Street 'modernism.'" Keepnews did get a few things wrong: he places Monk at Minton's in 1938; has him recording with Hawkins in 1940 rather than 1944; and puts him on the road with Hawk for two years, "which meant that he was not on hand during the period when 'bebop' . . . was first being stylized and strongly plugged."73 Still, for an impromptu hour-long conversation in the corner of a room with a stranger, Keepnews accomplished a lot.
Besides contacting the jazz press, Lorraine Lion made a concerted effort to reach out to the black press. Most publications turned her down, including a fairly new but widely circulated photo magazine called Ebony.74 The Pittsburgh Courier took the bait, running virtually the entire press release with Lorraine Lion's byline (except for the paragraph describing Monk as mysterious, absorbed, and "shy and elusive").75 Dan Burley of the Amsterdam News reproduced many of the same references to Monk's "aura of mystery" and his elusive behavior, while playing up the rivalry between Dizzy and Thelonious over who deserves credit for originating bebop. Burley minces no words: "Off Thelonious' groundwork, commercial-minded lads constructed a money empire and brought bebop to the public. But Thelonious has always remained in the shadows of obscurity and while others rise to fame and fortune, he has to struggle as best he can to get along."76
The Chicago Defender also bought Lion's story about Monk's eccentricity, and they accepted the claim that Thelonious was the real progenitor of bebop. Rather than run the press release verbatim, the editors sent their
correspondent to Thelonious's house to get the scoop on the "Creator of 'Bebop.'" Remarkably, Monk talked a lot. For whatever reason, he shared his opinions fully and freely. First, he took issue with the name bebop. "I don't like to think of my music as bebop—but as modern music. I don't dig the word. It doesn't mean anything, it's just scatting like hi-de-hi-de-ho or se-bop-baty-iou." Second, he took issue with the music itself, suggesting that what often was labeled bebop lacked coherence, pretty melodies, and a strong, swinging beat—all qualities he believed were essential to good music. "I like the music to sound melodious. . . . People have to know harmony. It's harder for people to understand bebop who don't know music." He adds, "Everybody has a different conception of melody. That's why some music is prettier than other [sic]. You should always have melody in the piece." And rhythm. "I play with a swing beat. But everything's got a beat, you live by beats—the beat of your heart. If your heart stops beating that's curtains."77 Monk was sure of the impact he'd made on modern jazz: "I hear a lot of my influence in modern music." He complained that "The public hasn't been hearing the right music," but continued to hope that "By listening and paying attention, [the public] can tell the difference between good and bad music. They'll dig. They'll learn."78 New York
In many ways, it was a remarkable interview. Monk was clear, coherent, assertive, even witty. But when the issue of his love life came up, Monk was evasive once again. Perhaps protecting Nellie's privacy or his own, he was emphatic about his bachelor status, announcing that he had no plans to marry and was patiently waiting for "a beautiful millionaire woman." Whether or not Nellie laughed it off or was genuinely nervous about their future, Thelonious was suddenly getting a lot of attention and exhibited, at least on the page, a slightly inflated sense of self. And in fact there were a few millionaire women in search of their own "High Priest of Bebop." But Nellie had been waiting too long not to consider the possibility of matrimony.
Meanwhile, Monk continued to make a name for himself. On February 16, Monk's quartet (Sulieman, Blakey, and bassist Curley Russell) participated in radio station WNYC's Ninth Annual "American Music Program." Surprisingly, during the fourteen-minute broadcast, the group did not play any of Thelonious's compositions.79 The following month, Thelonious returned to Minton's Playhouse, now as a money-earning bandleader.80 It had been years since he was on the payroll. Teddy Hill was now the co-owner, Eddie "Lockjaw"
oversaw the Monday night sessions as musical director, and Monk's band—with Sahib Shihab, Al McKibbon, and Blakey—was the main attraction. Sometimes Idrees Sulieman joined the group, or Ike Quebec or Danny Quebec West showed up. These became Monk's stable of musicians, the artists who knew the music and could keep up with him. Davis
Growing fame did not always guarantee ideal performing conditions. On April 30, he and some friends from the neighborhood, calling themselves the "San Juan Hill Association," rented the Golden Gate Ballroom on 142nd and Lenox Avenue in Harlem and organized a concert featuring Monk. The publicity billed Thelonious as "The High Priest of Be-Bop." They brought the popular "MacBeth the Great and his Calypso Serenadors" to open for Monk's group, which consisted of Sulieman, both
, Curley Russell, and Blakey. For a mere buck and a half, dancers could enjoy not only virtually nonstop music from to , but they could meet the lovely "Miss San Juan Hill," winner of the recent neighborhood beauty pageant.81 Quebecs
The event attracted a decent turnout.
Harlem and Brooklyn's West Indian community came out in droves to hear MacBeth's raucous performances of "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" and "Hold 'Em Joe." But there were glitches when Monk's group took the bandstand. Sitting at the Golden Gate's old grand piano, Monk found a dead key while the band was tuning up. No problem; he had had his share of dead keys and broken strings. But then he noticed that the pedal post was falling apart. Every time he hit the sustain pedal it jiggled uncomfortably. Once the band hit, the pedal got worse. A few choruses into the first song, Monk decided it had to go. He reached down to rip it out with one hand, while continuing to play with the other. When that didn't work, he bent down farther and applied both hands to the post. As Paul Bacon observed, "There was a slight crack, a ripping sound, and off came the whole works, to be flung aside as Monk calmly resumed playing." By the time the pianist for MacBeth returned for another set, he was a little thrown off by the sudden reconfiguration of the piano.82 The dancers didn't care; MacBeth still rocked the house.
Monk's road to fame felt longer and more treacherous once the reviews appeared. Down Beat's reviewer gave Monks first disc only two stars each for "Thelonious" and "Suburban Eyes." He wrote, "On his own solo spots, there seem to be points at which Monk is thinking about the stock returns or the seventh at Pimlico—anything but his piano. He also has several passages where he plays straight striding Waller piano. As a modernist, this can hardly be excused. All present-day piano players have right hands with eight fingers and a rigid claw on the left hand. . . . From the Monk we expect better."83 The reviewer for Metronome concurred, dismissing "Thelonious" with a letter-grade of "C," in part because he plays "an ancient piano style" (i.e., stride). "Suburban Eyes" scored a slightly higher grade of C+, largely due to the strength of Sulieman, Danny Quebec West, and Billy Smith, but "Monk's piano nullifies this capable trio's efforts."8'
The second disc, with "Well, You Needn't" and " 'Round ," did not fare much better. The review in Down Beat said, "The Monk is undoubtedly a man of considerable ability both technically and harmonically but his abstractions on these sides are just too too—and I played them early in the morning and late at night. 'Needn't' doesn't require a Juilliard diploma to understand, but '' is for the super hip alone. Why they list the personnel on a side where the whole band plays like a vibra-toless organ under the piano solo is a mystery."85 Billboard proved more sympathetic, though the magazine's witty one-liners can hardly be called reviews. About "Thelonious," for example, this is all the reviewer wrote: "Grandaddy of the beboppers, pianist Monk turns out a controversial jazz disking worked out on one tone riff." Using a rating system ranging from 0 to 100, the Billboard reviewer gave "Thelonious" a 68 and "Suburban Eyes" 67.86
The most sympathetic review to appear that spring was written by someone whose authority could have easily been questioned: Paul Bacon. Bacon, after all, was friends with the Lions and had worked for Blue Note when Monk was recording with them. And he had befriended Monk, seeing him often at Minton's Playhouse and sometimes hanging out with him a little between sets.87 On the other hand, the jazz world was so incestuous that it wasn't uncommon for record producers to review recordings— sometimes even their own projects.88 Bacon was a real fan and a careful listener. In a lengthy review of the second disc for The Record Changer, he assigns Monk a central role in shaping the direction of modern music, despite the fact that his unorthodox style had cost him jobs. Bacon believed Monk's strengths lay in his use of space, his conception of rhythm ("Monk has a beat like ocean waves—no matter how sudden, spasmodic or obscure, his little inventions, he rocks irresistibly on"), and his ability to draw on the history of music in unpredictable ways. "He plays riffs that are older than Bunk Johnson," Bacon wrote, "but they don't sound the same; his beat is familiar but he does something strange there, too—he can make a rhythm seem almost separate, so that what he does is inside it, or outside it. He may play for a space in nothing but smooth phrases and then suddenly jump on a part and repeat it with an intensity beyond description."89
All the good press in the world wasn't enough to sell records.
could not sell Monk. Downtown record stores were a bust because "they thought he lacked technique."90 She had no luck in Lorraine Harlem, either. She lugged boxes of 78s uptown, but "the guys in those record stores would say, 'He can't play. He has two left hands.'"91 She even traveled the country with her case of 78s, with little success, though she had no trouble selling other Blue Note artists. "I went to Philly, , a whole lineup, Cleveland, Chicago.... I had to battle all the way to get them to buy a Monk record and listen to him."92 Baltimore
But selling records and winning converts is not the same thing. While Monk did nothing for the jazz establishment, the record collectors and Down Beat readers, a growing number of black musicians, writers, and artists heard in Monk's music a distillation of the modern age. Monk found a hearing early on among writers like Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes, and his Blue Note recordings had a profound effect on a fourteen-year-old Newark kid named LeRoi Jones ("Monk was my main man"93), who was destined to become one of the most important poets of the postwar era. Thelonious inspired visual artists such as Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis, who spent many evenings at Minton's and heard in Monk the musical equivalent of abstract expressionism.94 The clearest manifestation of Monk's importance for self-proclaimed black Modernists is the 1948 publication of Nard Griffins slim volume, To Be or Not to Bop. A little-known
Harlem writer who gained some notoriety as a jazz critic, set out to give the new music intellectual legitimacy while defusing the pitched battles between boppers and traditionalists. Rejecting the term "bebop" in favor of "the New Listen" or "the new movement in modern music," Griffin identified Monk, along with Bird and Diz, as one of its founding fathers. He called Monk "one of the more progressive minded men in music.... He too has contributed much to modern jazz and offers something new and different in piano work."95 Monk and the emerging generation of modernists had created an art form that served as a metaphor for the modern age: "The next decade or so will bring about an even greater transfiguration, thus coinciding music with other developments of the period. In this day of atomic progress, jet propulsion, and many seemingly fantastic inventions and ideas, such as rockets and 'the new look' there can be no wonder that a new and dynamic idea in music is offered in the guise of BeBop."96 Griffin
Monk probably saw
's book, as it made the rounds among black musicians in Griffin Harlem. (He may have even teased Dizzy years later for stealing the title for his own memoir!) But the assessment that mattered most was beyond reach of his eyes and ears. During the summer of 1948, while Duke Ellington's band was traveling by train in the southern coast of , trumpeter Ray Nance decided to pass the time away by listening to records on a little portable phonograph he had picked up. "I put on one of my Thelonious Monk records. Duke was passing by in the corridor, and he stopped and asked, 'Who's that playing?' I told him. 'Sounds like he's stealing some of my stuff,' he said. So he sat down and listened to my records, and he was very interested. He understood what Monk was doing."97 England
Meanwhile, 1948 was turning out to be Monks busiest year since he left Hawkins. When his stint at Minton’s ended, Monte Kay offered him a short gig at a club he was managing called the Royal Roost. In its past life, the Roost was a nondescript chicken joint on Broadway and
West 47th Street, but once Monte Kay took over, it became "the Metropolitan Bopera House," or the "House that Bop Built." Bird, Dizzy, Lester Young, and Tadd Dameron were among the featured artists, and "Symphony Sid" Torin, the celebrated jazz dj, was the master of ceremonies. The Roost attracted a younger crowd (it even had a milk bar for teens) and was all about the music. Patrons not interested in drinking could pay ninety cents to sit in bleacher seats. It had no dance floor, no fancy revues, just bebop.98 Thelonious led several sessions at the Roost during part of May and June with a band that included Milt Jackson and bassists John Simmons and Curley Russell. Dozens of musicians sat in, from Bird to tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray." Although later sessions with Tadd Dameron, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bird were broadcast from the Royal Roost, none of Monk's sessions received airplay, something about which he would grumble in later years.
Many Roost regulars were still unaccustomed to Monks style. Even some of the musicians didn't know what to do with him. Bassist John Simmons couldn't follow Monk when they first started working together. "He played between the keys, he played against the meter, and he would just play all over the piano, you know. It wasn't anything you could follow. If you didn't know the tune, you couldn't play with him. Now, if you're playing by ear, you had to listen to the melodic line. So I trained my ears to listening to Bags, you know, Milt Jackson. I'd just throw Monk out of my ear. I just closed my ears to him completely." When that didn't work, Simmons turned to cocaine, reefer, and Seagram's VO: "I was resorting to this to try to get way spaced out to keep up with Monk, and I couldn't catch him... ."100
Largely because of his association with the Roost and with Symphony Sid's "bebop all-stars," Monk was invited to play a benefit for
in Sydenham Hospital Harlem held on June 9. It was the first of many benefit concerts he would participate in. Sydenham had been struggling for some time, facing severe financial shortfalls, made worse by the resignation of its director. The administration scrambled to pull together several emergency fundraisers just to keep its doors open.101 Nat "King" Cole, one of Monk's favorite pianists, headlined the star-studded event. Besides the usual suspects (Bird, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Max Roach), some of the more prominent participants included comedians Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, and Zero Mostel, the famous dance duo the Nicholas Brothers, Jimmie Lunceford's band, and singer Thelma Carpenter. Monk brought his own sextet—Sulieman, both , Curley Russell, and Blakey—though given the number of artists on the bill, they probably only performed a couple of tunes. Still, it was a special night for Thelonious, not because of who was there but where they played: the event was held at Quebecs , Nellie's Central Needle Trades High School mater.102 alma
On Monday, June 28, while Monk was leaving the Roost after his last Sunday night set, police rolled up on him and discovered a small bag of marijuana in his possession. He was arrested, held in the Tombs overnight, and arraigned.103 Marijuana possession, which had been outlawed by the federal government eleven years earlier, was considered a misdemeanor in New York State.104 Between Monk's meager income and contributions from Sonny, Geraldine, and Nellie, they were able to raise the modest bail money; he was released the next day to await a trial date. Misdemeanor or not, possession of reefer was punishable by a fine of up to $500 and/or imprisonment "not exceeding one year."105 He also faced unemployment: The Roost never let him come back.
According to Nellie, Monk's arrest and his consequent joblessness were no accident. She insisted that the management—in this instance, Monte Kay—had set Thelonious up because they wanted to replace him.106 Though the evidence is purely circumstantial, if the Roost wanted to get rid of Monk, his arrest came at a convenient time. Monte Kay found Monk's music interesting and had worked with him on and off since Monk's time with Hawkins at the Down Beat Club. But he still saw Monk as a "troubled guy and not too reliable."107 Regardless of what really went down the morning of June 28, the consequences proved disastrous.
Three days following his release from jail, Monk was back in the studio for another Blue Note session, despite the current recording ban called by the AFM.108 His commitment to the label was unshakable. Blue Note was preparing to release another 78 from the fall '47 sessions—"Off Minor" and "Evonce"—and the Lions felt he needed more music in the can. Frustrated by their inability to sell Monk's records, they decided to try something different. First, they included Milt Jackson as a featured artist on the date.
had begun to gain a bit of a following as a soloist with Dizzy Gil-lespie and Howard McGhee, and in the spring of 1948 he briefly formed his own band with John Lewis and Jackson Kenny Clarke.109 Jackson was a crowd favorite; his solos swung hard and seemed to lift the audience. Second, Blue Note and Monk decided to add a couple of vocal numbers. Monk hired crooner Kenny "Pancho" Hagood, whom he knew and performed with when they both were in Dizzy Gillespie's big band in 1946. Monk even changed the rhythm section, bringing John Simmons, the bassist from the Royal Roost, and drummer Rossiere "Shadow" Wilson. Neither Simmons nor Wilson was strongly identified with bebop, but both artists were incredibly versatile and had worked with swing bands representing different eras. Simmons recorded with everyone, from James P. Johnson and Big Sid Catlett to Ben Webster, Billie Holiday, and Coleman Hawkins.110 Wilson was best known for his work with the Count Basic Orchestra, though he also played with Lionel Hampton, Benny Carter, and Earl Hines.111 For whatever reason, Monk was looking for a change, and he put together a more mature band. Everyone in the quartet had an established reputation and a fairly long resume, although Monk was still the elder of the group.
Monk's choice of swing-era veterans and modernists paid off. The band cut six sides in nine takes, two of which were new compositions: "Evidence," based on the changes from "Just You, Just Me," was still being composed when Monk first recorded, and it's a stripped-down version of what the song will become. "Misterioso," the other new tune, was Monk's only twelve-bar blues to date. The band also updated a couple of older Monk compositions: the Minton's theme song "Epistrophy" and "I Mean You." Both songs are radical departures from earlier recordings by Cootie Williams and Coleman Hawkins, respectively. They are more angular and dissonant, and Monk's accents on "I Mean You" are more off-center without losing a sense of swing. He brilliantly echoes
's interpretation of the opening theme and plays countermelodies so jarring and unusual that they overwhelm the melody. Jackson
If Wolff and the Lions thought the addition of a couple of vocal numbers might make Monk more palatable to a popular audience, they were wrong. Monk wasn't backing a singer for a house band; he was leading his own recording session, trying to make music on his own terms. His reading of the standards "All the Things You Are" and "I Should Care" with
Kenny "Pancho" Hagood were startling. Monk and Jackson create a dense chaos of lush, dissonant fills that threaten to overwhelm Hagood, who had enough trouble trying to stay in tune. The effect is as if Monk and Jackson are having a bizarre conversation behind Hagood's back, and their harmonically adventurous figures not only crash into each other but strip these songs of romanticism, investing them with humor.112 But if Jackson and Monk had fun, Hagood did not. Always the task master, Thelonious made Hagood sing "I Should Care" out of his range, despite his protestations. According to John Simmons, "Pancho's throat was sore for a week. Couldn't get him to sing a note. He hurt himself."113
All the songs on the date, particularly Monk's musical dialogues with Milton Jackson, exemplify Monk's characteristic parallel voices, collective improvisation, and layering of melodic lines and countermelodies. In these and other recordings, he invents countermelodies, incorporates arpeggios (outlining chords in single notes, often emphasizing the most dissonant tonalities), and plays many different "runs" down the piano—particularly runs built on whole-tone scales. Monk, in other words, conceived of the piano as an orchestral instrument. He thought in multiple lines—two, three, even four—and played independent rhythmic lines with his left and right hands. It was a key to Monk as a composer, improviser, and arranger—three components of making music that he treated as inseparable.114 For Monk, the composition was not just the melody but the entire performance. He had little interest in "blowing sessions." Even when musicians were improvising together, he expected a level of orchestration that would sustain the essential elements of the piece.
Thelonious left the studio on a high. It seemed like nothing could bring him down—neither the fact that he was looking at a possible drug conviction and jail time, that he was jobless, nor that his bosses at the Royal Roost chose Tadd Dameron, a pianist Monk believed "really couldn't play . . . couldn't finger nothing, hardly,"115 to lead the house band. The feeling didn't last very long, however. A few days after the session, someone handed Thelonious a copy of the latest New Yorker magazine with Richard Boyer's piece on "Bop." It was a strange article—a publicity vehicle for Dizzy, a sensational and inaccurate expose of bebop, and a provocation. The article positioned Monk and Dizzy as adversaries, labeling Gillespie the "Abraham Lincoln of jazz" (against Monk's "George Washington") for his role in freeing the music "from a weak banality" of swing and "irregular rhythm and strange new chord combinations."116 Boyer called into question the publicity Monk received proclaiming him the progenitor of the music. "There are devotees of bebop music," he wrote, "who believe that the Monk, as Thelonious is sometimes called, had more to do with the origin of bebop than Dizzy did." He added, "There is a certain coolness between the two men, and their relations are rather formal."117 He even raised doubts as to who between them initiated the beret, sunglasses, and goatee.
Boyer's caricature of Monk is at times flattering and at others silly or degrading. He describes Monk (who was approaching his thirty-first birthday) as "a somber, scholarly twenty-one-year-old Negro with a bebop beard, who played piano with a sacerdotal air, as if the keyboard were an altar and he an acolyte." To add to the pretensions of the portrait, Boyer attributes the following quote to Thelonious: "We liked Ravel, Stravinsky, Debussy, Prokofieff, Schoenberg... and maybe we were a little influenced by them."1 ] If the quote is authentic, it was undoubtedly a response to a leading question—e.g., did Stravinsky or modern composers influence the development of modern jazz? Boyer even claims that Monk declared himself Arab. "Thelonious sometimes forgets that he was born on
West Sixty-third Street and announces that he is a native of ."11 It's hard to imagine what questions would have elicited that one. Damascus
What hurt Monk most, however, was the reminder that for all his hard work, for all the press he had received, for all the gigs he had cobbled together, for all the recording sessions and requisite rehearsals, for all the sidemen too green or too lazy to play his music correctly, he was broke and Dizzy was rich. The article reported that Dizzy's combined income for 1948 was expected to exceed $25,000, and that over the past eight years he had earned $20,000 in royalties from recording.120
Monk, on the other hand, had no work. He passed the time writing, visiting friends and family—playing checkers, basketball, Ping-Pong, and double-dutch with his nieces and nephews ("He was a good turner," his niece Charlotte recalled 121)— checking in on Nellie, smoking reefer, dropping Benzedrine or "bennies" every once in a while, and preparing for his court date. He also sought out places to play, sitting in wherever he could. On July 11, for example, he dropped by the Onyx Club where Charlie Parker was leading a quintet with Miles Davis, Duke Jordan (piano), Tommy Potter (bass), and Max Roach. With the High Priest in the house,
gave up the piano stool so Monk and the band could blow on his original composition, "Well, You Needn't." Saxophonist and amateur audio documentarian Dean Benedetti was in the audience with his recorder and captured some of Monk and Bird's brief musical dialogue. Monk's comping is so strong and so angular that even Parker gets a little flustered toward the end of the recording.122 But the priest wasn't trying to dethrone the prince. Jordan
On August 31, the case of The State of New York vs. Thelonious Monk finally came on the docket. Despite positive testimony from Monk's closest associates, including Alfred Lion, the judge found him guilty as charged and sentenced him to thirty days in theTombs.”123
57 Cuscuna, The Complete Blue Note Recordings, 3.
58 Hentoff, The Jazz Life, 184.
59 Gordon, Alive at the Village Vanguard, 66-67; on Ingersoll, see Roy Hoopes, Ralph Ingersoll: A Biography (New York: Atheneum, 1985).
60 In her memoir, Gordon refers to "Seymour Peck" when she actually meant Ira.
was Ira's older brother and a more prominent literary figure on the Seymour scene. He also wrote for PM and became a major drama critic and editor for the New York Times Arts and Leisure section (after surviving a bout of Red-baiting during the McCarthy period). He was killed in a car accident in 1985. Ira Peck followed his older brother's path, writing drama, film, and television criticism for the New York Times, as well as juvenile biography and history for Scholastic. See Herbert Mitgang, "Seymour Peck: Times Editor for 32 Years, Killed in Crash," New York Times, New York January 2,1985; "Ira Peck," Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2002, http://galenet.galegroup.com.
61 Gordon, Alive at the Village Vanguard, 66—67. Surprisingly, Peck never once mentions the fact that she is present during the interview.
Peck, "The Piano Man," 7.
Alonzo White, interview,
February 23, 2004.
Peck, "The Piano Man," 7.
"Dizzy Writing Book on Be-Bop,"
Eagle, California February 5, 1948.
See for example Tera Hunter's brilliant book, To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).
69 Gordon, Alive at the Village Vanguard, 68; see also, Course, Straight, No Chaser, 55.
70 Jesse Hamlin, "A Life in Jazz,"
College Today (November 2004), www.college.columbia.edu/cct/ nov04/features2.php; Keepnews, The View from Within, 7. Columbia
71 Quoted in Rob Tocalino, "Keepnews and Monk: A Shared Legacy," 8th Annual SF Spring Season—Official Program Book (SFJazz, 2007), 7; see also, Keepnews, The View from Within, 108.
72 Orrin Keepnews, "Thelonious Monk's Music May Be First Sign of Bebop's Legitimacy," Record Changer 7, no. 4 (April 1948), 5; reprinted in Orrin Keepnews, The View From Within, 111.
73 Keepnews, "Thelonious Monk's Music," 20.
74 Ben Burns, Executive Editor of Ebony Magazine to Lorraine Lion, March 25,1948, Blue Note Archives, Capitol Records.
Lion, "Thelonious Monk Deserves Credit for Gifts to Jazz," Lorraine Courier, Pittsburgh February 14,1948.
76 Dan Burley, "Thelonious Monk and His Bebop,"
News, Amsterdam February 21,1948.
77 "Creator of 'Be bop' Objects to Name and Changes in His Style," Chicago Defender,
79 "The News of Radio," New York Times,
February 2, 1948; Sidney Lohman, "Radio Row: One Thine or Another," New York Times, February 8, 1948. They performed two standards: "Just You, Just Me," and "Allthe Things You Are," and Ike Quebec's "Suburban Eyes.' The broadcast was released on Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum, The Vibes are On (Chazzer 2002).
80 The Executive Committee did not get around to approving Monk's contract with Mintons until
May 6,1948. Minutes of the Executive Board, June 3, 1948, AFM Local 802, reel 5276. This may mean the gig was later than March.
New York News, Amsterdam April 24,1948.
82 Paul Bacon, "The High Priest of Be-bop: The Inimitiable Mr. Monk," Record Changer 8, no. 11 (November, 1949), 9-10.
83 Down Beat (February 25,1948), 19.
84 Metronome (April 1948), 45-46.
85 Down Beat (April 21,1948), 19.
86 Billboard (February 21,1948), 117.
87 Paul Bacon interview,
88 See John Gennari, Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics (
: Chicago Press, 2006). University of Chicago
89 Paul Bacon," 'Round About ,' 'Well, You Needn't,'" Record Changer, 1, no. 5 (May 1948), 18.
90 Cuscusna, The Complete Blue Note Recordings, 4.
91 Lorraine Gordon quoted in Course, Straight, No Chaser, 53.
92 Ibid., 53.
93 Amiri Baraka, The Autobiography of LeRoiJones/Amiri Baraka (New York: Freundlich Books, 1984), 139.
94 Both Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden have talked about how modern jazz influenced abstract expressionism. For Lewis, 1948-1949 marked his embrace of a kind of bebop-influenced abstraction. See his "Jazz Band" (1948) and "
Harlem at the Gate"(1949). See Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson, A History of African American Artists from 1792 to the Present (New York: Random House, 1993), 168-172. See also, Robin D. G. Kelley, "Breaking the Color Bind: A Decade of American Masters," catalogue essay for African American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, X ( : Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 2003). New York
, To Be or Not to Bop (New York: Leo Workman, 1948), 5. Griffin
96 Ibid., 2.
97 Ray Nance quoted in Stanley Dance, The World of Duke Ellington (New York: Da Capo Press, 2000, orig., 1970), 139.
98 Shaw, 52ndStreet, 272; Shipton, Groovin’ High, 208.
99 According to Chris Sheridan, Monk had two stints at the Roost—May 4—16 (or longer) and June 15—27.
, Brilliant Corners, 355-56. Local 802 approved Monk's contract with the Roost on June 3. Minutes of the Executive Board, Sheridan June 3, 1948, AFM Local 802, reel 5276. Ira Gitler was a frequent patron and he was there the night Wardell Gray sat in with Monk. Ira Gitler interview, August 13, 2007.
100 "Interview with John Simmons, by Patricia Willard," Tapes 1-9, NEA Oral History Project, Washington, D.C., 1977, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, pp. 58-59.
101 "Sydenham Seeks Aid to Bar Closing," New York Times,
March 1,1948; "Sydenham Gets $137,000," NewYork Times, March 8,1948.
News, Amsterdam June 5,1948; New York Times, June 7,1948.
103 Director of FBI to Legat,
(163-2971), cablegram, Tokyo September 3,1970, Thelonious Monk FBI File.
104 The 1937 Marihuana Tax Act made possession or transfer of marijuana illegal throughout the
, though exceptions were made for the pharmaceutical companies, who were required to pay an exorbitant excise tax. Several states had already outlawed marijuana use and possession, notably states in the Southwest where fear of the spread of marijuana was projected onto Mexican workers. Nevertheless, in United States and the rest of the country, the postwar period witnessed heightened policing of drug use and more draconian laws. African-Americans and Latinos, in general, and jazz musicians in particular, were often the target of raids, sting operations, and overall investigations. It is ironic that just four years before Monk's arrest, the LaGuardia Commission released a report challenging the federal bureau of narcotics' claims that marijuana is highly addictive, a source of crime and criminal activity, and is widespread. See H. Wayne Morgan, Drugs in New York : A Social History, 1800-1980 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1982), 140; Curtis Marez, Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics ( America : Minneapolis Press, 2004), 131; La Guardia Commission, The Marihuana Problem in the City of University of Minnesota (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Reprint Corp., 1973). New York
105 He was charged under Section 422 of the New York Public Health Law(1941), p. 134, and Section 1751aofthe New York Penal Law (1941), p. 153.
106 Nellie Monk interview,
January 12,2002; also, same story was repeated by Marcellus Green interview, December 31,2003.
Shaw, Arnold Fifty-Second Street, 180.
108 The ban was called partly in response to the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 banning closed shops, sympathy strikes, and secondary boycotts. It not only weakened the bargaining power of all organized labor, but a provision in the act outlawed the AFM's record-royalty fund. Any sort of industry paybacks to unions
that did not involve actual services was deemed illegal under Tart-Hartley. However, when the AFM's recording contracts expired on
January 1, 1948, Petrillo announced the ban. This time the industry was in a strong position, having made and stockpiled many more records than it could release on the market at once. The ban lasted almost a full year, culminating in a small victory for the AFM. To replace the record-royalty fund, the industry agreed to establish a Music Performance Trust Fund that would finance free concerts and pay struggling musicians union scale.
109 This group can be heard on Milt Jackson/Sonny Stitt, In the Beginning (Galaxy XY 204).
110 "Interview with John Simmons, by Patricia Willard," Tapes 1-9, NEA Oral History Project; Johnny Simmen and Barry Kernfeld, "Simmons, John," in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd ed., edited by Barry Kernfeld, Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/ music/J4lOOOO (accessed
111 Korall, Drummin’ Men, 59-69; Gitler, Jazz Masters of the Forties, 190.
112 All takes can be heard on The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk.
113 "Interview with John Simmons, by Patricia Willard," Tapes 1-9, NEA Oral History Project, p. 60.
114 I must here acknowledge Milton Stewart, who suggests that Monk developed an "mbira" approach to the piano, in which the left and right hands play rhythmically separate melodies featuring alternating pitches in the middle and bass registers. It produces the effect of two independent instruments being played simultaneously. Milton Stewart, "Thelonious Monk: Bebop or Something Different?" Jazz Research Papers 5 (1985), 182-8^.
115 Les Tomkins interview with Thelonious Monk, 1965.
116 Richard Boyer, "Profiles: Bop," New Yorker (July 3, 1948), 26.
117 Ibid., 29.
118 Ibid., 28.
119 Ibid., 29.
120 Ibid, 31.
121 Charlotte Washington interview,
April 5, 2004.
122 The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings (Mosaic MR10-129).
123 Subpeona for Alfred W. Lion, People of the State of
vs. Thelonious Monk, called for trial on New York August 31,1948, at 100 Centre Street at , Blue Note Archives.