Following Crumbs to Thelonious Monk
I started taking piano and flute lessons when I was nine years old. My mother screened about a dozen suitors and found a piano teacher who shared her passions for Schubert and Liszt, and a flute teacher who idolized Jean-Pierre Rampal and Yusef Lateef.
Flute lessons were Tuesday evenings and I always looked forward to them because the teacher liked to shake things up and always picked interesting pieces from jazz and rock composers for me to learn. My piano teacher took the opposite approach, plying me with studies, exercises and fragments of larger classical pieces that I would play over and over again until I got them right. I understood that he was trying to train my fingers and feet to respond to the various challenges posed by a score, but the experience of never learning a whole sonata or concerto was getting to be a drag by the time I turned fourteen. I was fast outgrowing the anal little girl who demanded a sense of order in the world and becoming a teenager with enormous cravings for sensual experiences of all kinds, including sensual music. All week I’d be blasting punk rock into my auditory canals, then on Saturday mornings I’d have to go play one-sixth of the first movement of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D fucking minor over and over for ninety minutes.
I came home one Saturday after a lesson where I had to play twenty bars of the first movement of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat fucking major ad infinitum to improve my phrasing on the lower part of the keyboard and opened the door to find my father thumbing through his record library. “Hey, Sunshine, how’s it going?” he greeted me. “Fucking great, dad, just fucking great,” I responded, flopping myself on the couch. “Whoa! Sounds like you could use a little pick-me-up!” “Yeah, sure dad,” I said closing my eyes and trying to tune out his irritating cheerfulness so I could thoroughly enjoy a delicious moment of teenage angst over the injustice of it all.
He started flipping through the jazz section, pulled out the record you see pictured above and gently lowered the needle onto the disc. In about thirty seconds I sat bolt upright and demanded to know who on earth was playing that piano.
“That, Little Sunshine, is Thelonious Monk,” he replied.
“Start it again!” I said with excitement. He ignored my rudeness and happily complied while I lay back down on the couch, closed my eyes and opened my ears as wide as they could go.
My parents had probably played this album a hundred times before but it failed to grab my attention until that moment. I’d never heard anyone do what Monk was doing. It was like he decided he’d make up his own rules as he went along, then break those rules and create new ones. That was so unlike my piano lesson experience that it took me a while to get the classical paradigm out of my head and stop expecting the notes to fall where they were supposed to fall. There was one moment where I started giggling because whatever Monk did at that moment was so surprising and clever that I had to laugh at the man’s audacity.
I listened to the whole album twice that day and spent the rest of the week replaying passages in my head. By the time my weekly piano lesson rolled around, I was ready to challenge the musical establishment.
We started the lesson and my teacher noticed that I was rushing the Liszt piece (not easy to do, because that sucker is fast and I’m no Martha Argerich). I saw this as my opportunity to open negotiations.
“You know, I’m kind of getting tired of this stuff. What I really want is to learn how to play like Thelonious Monk.”
He cocked his head and opened his eyes wide, like a dog trying to understand something unintelligible. For a minute I thought he was going to give me the lecture of a lifetime, but when he broke his gaze he gave me a sad little smile and began to shake his head.
“I cannot teach you that. That music comes from the spirit, not a score. It is genius.”
I was shocked. “You’re a Monk fan?” He nodded and said, “But I know I could never hope to play like him. I am too . . . bound by the rules, bound by time . . . ”
Though we never left the classics entirely, we agreed that we’d split the ninety minutes into sixty classical and thirty jazz. We started with Ellington, went backwards to pick up stride, then returned to Duke and Art Tatum. We got our feet wet with postwar modern with John Lewis, then gave Monk a shot and failed miserably. You could tell what the piece was, but it sure didn’t sound the way Monk played it. He may be the second-most recorded jazz composer after Ellington, but no one ever covers Monk and winds up sounding like Monk.
By then it was time for me to head off to college, and that’s when my musical training ended. I still play a little, but now I only use the piano when I want to understand a piece of music that intrigues me. I find nothing more intriguing than the music of Thelonious Monk, so every now and then I’ll take a short passage and try to deconstruct it without bothering to attempt to imitate his approach to the piano. The words “improvisational” and “idiosyncratic” don’t begin to describe it, and they’re not very helpful adjectives because they make his music sound inaccessible and esoteric.
Let’s try this. When Monk looked at the keyboard, he didn’t see white keys and black keys, but infinite possibilities. When he played a piece, he heard not only the basic rhythm but infinite possibilities between the beats. When he looked at the piano as a percussion instrument, he saw infinite possibilities in the application of force. Monk took Henry Miller’s advice to heart: “Why get up and repeat yesterday’s song-and dance?” He had a deep understanding of the way music “should be” played, but believed that replicating the “should be” was a drag. More than any musician, Monk took the word “play” very literally, and he is by far the most playful musician I’ve ever heard. His music may be sophisticated, but it often captures the spontaneous exuberance of a child.
Many people thought he was crazy, and during his lifetime he was misdiagnosed by several so-called psychiatric experts. Many great artists have been classified as insane to some degree, a pattern that says more about society’s inability to embrace creativity and individuality and its decrepit belief in a state called “normal” than it does about the true nature of the artist, or any other human being for that matter. People have always had a problem with those who are different, even with those whose different natures harm no one. Monk had his “strange” moods, his irrepressible urges to get up from his piano to do little dances or leave the stage during performances, and he could be either “overly” communicative or “withdrawn.” I put quotes around all those adjectives because they reflect the negative judgments of people incapable of empathy and of understanding behavior that does not fall under their definition of “normal.” I would imagine that living in such a world made life problematic for Thelonious Monk, and he must have suffered to some degree as a result of that alienation. What I admire about him is his refusal to be limited by convention in his pursuit of imaginative possibilities.
Breaking the rules and norms in any field of endeavor is likely to result in accusations of insanity . . . until the breakthrough becomes “normal” and the artist or the visionary are then celebrated for their courage, usually after years of suffering or their death. I wish the human race would evolve to the point where we can just skip the crucifixions and the stonings and recognize creative insight as a blessing, not a curse.
If you look at Monk’s career, you’ll see that he played with all the big names in the postwar era: Parker, Gillespie, Christian, Clarke, Hawkins, Davis and Coltrane. To what extent they played with him is up for debate. Monk was problematic as a supporting pianist because he liked following whatever trail of musical crumbs he found in the piece, a tendency that unnerved many a soloist he supported. Coltrane shook his head and learned to let Monk be Monk; Miles Davis and Monk sometimes let their tempers boil over. Monk’s intuitive impulses and obvious originality demanded that he become the leader, but to do that he needed a group of supporting musicians who could ride the unexpected waves he would leave in his wake. He finally found the right lineup with Charlie Rouse (tenor sax), John Ore (bass) and Frankie Dunlop (drums). When they recorded Monk’s Dream, they had been with Monk for a couple of years, so the combo was well-versed in dealing with the unexpected.
Monk’s Dream was Monk’s first album for Columbia Records. Jazz purists will point you in the direction of his recordings for Prestige and Riverside, but this is the best place to start. Several of these pieces can be found on earlier recordings that are deservedly cherished by many fans. Part of what makes Monk’s Dream more accessible to the curious listener is that Monk was working with Teo Macero, the man who produced Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and one of the most accomplished producers of his time.
The title track opens the album, the piece that inspired me to do battle with the classical approach to music. I love playing “Monk’s Dream (Take 8)” for people who are completely unfamiliar with Thelonious Monk, for the invariable initial reaction is, “Does this guy know how to fucking play?” I shush them and tell them to keep listening, and about halfway through they start to feel it. The first forty or so seconds feature Monk over a light drum and bass backing, riffing off a cheery little motif. What unnerves people is that as he works the motif and runs through the melody, Monk inserts off-beat nanosecond delays in the rhythm that give the impression that his hands could have used more warm-up time. After a while it hits you that his approach is deliberate: unpredictable rhythms, surprising runs out of nowhere, stops and hesitations, subtle and surprising variations of the theme. Take Coltrane’s advice and listen to the bass player to provide a foundation and the experience will begin to come together; John Ore is solid. You’ll also notice that Frankie Dunlop is free-flowing along with Monk and he sounds nice and loose back there on the kit. When Charlie Rouse comes in for his sax solo, you can hear that he’s feeling it, too.
Monk “accompanies” Charlie, but it’s not like any accompaniment you’ve ever heard; it’s like he’s calling up all possible rhythmic and chord combinations that could possibly fit what Charlie is doing, no matter how bizarre they may appear at first blush. I feel almost abandoned when Monk steps back and lets the rest of the combo take over, but it does give them the opportunity to show that they know how to swing and they’re all first-rate musicians. Monk returns with what sounds like a new melodic theme, but no, you hear the familiar motif thrown in the mix and you begin to appreciate how much this man can create from a single musical idea. Even with all the variation throughout the song, the basic motif remains the centerpiece, but now you’ve learned that you have all these new and wonderful places to go! Just to show he can do it, Monk and Charlie play the main theme together for a minute at the end, and while Monk can’t help himself from taking a liberty here and there, the duet is spot on. The CD release features Take 3 as a bonus track, with a shortened intro by Monk and more duet time with Charlie Rouse in the opening minutes; it’s worth a good listen because Monk tries a different set of possibilities, underscoring the constant creativity in his approach to music.
“Body and Soul” is the jazz classic everyone has covered, from Louis Armstrong to Billie Holliday to John Coltrane. My favorite vocal version is Ella Fitzgerald’s, but the most influential was Coleman Hawkins’ 1939 version where he ignores the original melody and improvises over the chord progression. He drops a few hints to let the listening audience know it’s still “Body and Soul,” but on a higher level, he freed the soloist to discover additional melodic possibilities in a song. Thelonious Monk didn’t need to be told to create new possibilities with anything he touched, and accordingly his version is a fascinating mix of the core song (very recognizable in the opening passages) and a deconstruction/reconstruction of the melody to give it new life. There’s one gorgeous passage where the pauses between notes increase and both rhythm and melody seem suspended in mid-air. Suddenly Monk ends the suspense with a dramatic descending sweep starting in the upper range and moving down a few octaves, then returns to re-establish the dominant left-hand rhythm. You might not be able to dance to this version of “Body and Soul, ” but it is most definitely an engrossing experience.
“Bright Mississippi” is really “Sweet Georgia Brown,” a ten-minute opportunity for the combo to swing to a more traditional rhythmic pattern. Charlie Rouse has a great time blowing that sax in a five-minute solo, like he’s trying to motivate a nightclub full of dancers in their finest suits and satin dresses to get up and shake their fannies. When Monk comes in about midway through the song, you can tell he’s got the groove, and his hands spend a lot of time at the upper end of the keyboard in a dazzling performance reminiscent of the moments when a great blues or rock guitarist bends those blue notes way up on the fretboard. In the background, John Ore is laying down absolutely flawless bass support and once again, Frankie Dunlop plays it loose and full of energy. The ten-minute length might put off listeners who have learned to be skeptical of long songs by having been bored to tears by the overwrought progressive rock opus that rarely delivers the goods, but this song flies by and never loses energy.
“Five Spot Blues” is a tighter version of “Blues Five Spot,” which appeared previously as a live recording on the Riverside album Misterioso. Tighter does not always translate into “better” or “more interesting,” and Johnny Griffin’s sax work on that album was exceptional. Monk is still pretty hot, mixing up the dynamics with more subtlety during Charlie’s sax solo. “Bolivar Blues” appeared under a different title on another Riverside album, Brilliant Corners, but in a much slower tempo with the amazing Sonny Rollins on tenor sax. To me, they’re two completely different pieces based on the same motif, with Monk’s intro containing clear signs of boogie-woogie on this version, setting a completely different mood. The original is late-night sexy, lasts for over thirteen glorious minutes and featured a combo of Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry and Ernie Henry. If you’re in the mood for quirky-cheerful, go with the Monk’s Dream version; if you’re in the mood for a perfect accompaniment to foreplay, go with the original.
Monk covered “Just a Gigolo” twice before this version, on Thelonious Monk Trio for Prestige and Misterioso. In all three versions, he brings out the melody and the musical subtext with utter brilliance, though I prefer this version because the recording quality better captures the reflective mood in the clearer overtones. It’s interesting to compare different interpretations by different artists, as this song has been covered by Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn, Louis Prima, David Lee Roth (!) and Oscar Peterson. The original is of Austrian origin, written in the 1920’s during the period of corruption and decline of post-WWI Europe; a proud hussar is reduced to selling himself as a hired dancer, with implications that he offers add-on services at the right price. Oscar Peterson’s interpretation is the most dramatic and intense of the lot, a thundering performance that captures the underlying social tensions that will explode into the insanity of 1930’s Europe. Bing Crosby’s is suitably laid-back and threadbare, rather like his rendition of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” without the indignation. Louis Prima and David Lee Roth thought of themselves as “good time guys” in the role, which trivializes the character. Personally, I think Armstrong and Monk nailed it. Both Louis with his vocal and Monk on the ivories capture the anguish of the man seeing the prime of his life pissed away in circumstances beyond his control, looking to the future without the slightest glimmer of hope. Monk creates a world of inner tension with his percussive ability while painting a façade of elegance with his sensitive handling of the melody; you can easily picture this piece playing over a scene from the film of the gigolo’s life story as he dances mechanically, awkwardly and sadly over the floor. The ending flourishes are both beautiful and deeply ironic. Here’s a rare filmed performance of “Just a Gigolo”; I love the body language that illustrates so well how Monk experienced music:
“Bye-Ya” dates back to Thelonious Monk Trio as well, and in this case I have to go with the original, a free-flowing Latin-tinged bash that throbs with excitement. This version is a bit more polished and subdued; nice, but not up to the standard of the Prestige original. Much more interesting is Monk’s transformation of the Guy Lombardo hit, “Sweet and Lovely.” It constantly amazes me what the modern jazz greats did with rather pedestrian standards, for when I listen The Sound of Music version of “My Favorite Things,” I think “yuck!” and never want to hear that fucking song again as long as I live. Fortunately, Coltrane could see possibilities where I see fluff, and his translation makes the song come alive. Monk turns this rather stiff piece of music into something that sounds more like a genuine appreciation of female beauty than a convention-enforcing reminder to young women to stay cute and keep your mouth shut. Charlie Rouse stars in this piece with a long solo that sounds like he’s recalling the faces of all the beautiful women he’s ever known in his life. I love the way Charlie comps Monk with single sustained notes when it’s Monk’s turn to solo in the closing segment; it feels like two males bonding over scotch and memories of fine women as the lights dim and the camera fades to black.
You will hear all kinds of pejorative adjectives to describe Monk: dissonant, angled, unruly, chaotic. Sometimes his music can make you feel like you’re lost in a cubist painting trying to put the pieces together. What you need to realize is that you’re hearing it as disjointed and disconnected because of your go-to musical paradigm, whether that’s verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus pop, dance music or Mozart. Once you let go of those prejudices and listen to the sounds, rhythms and spaces that sprung from the spirit of Thelonious Monk, you’ll begin to realize that music doesn’t have to conform to the rules and that our music today would be so much richer if musicians would look beyond the formulas for new possibilities. They may never reach Monk’s level of improvisational and compositional brilliance, but it would sure make music a lot more interesting than it is at present.