Orrin Keepnews: Thelonious Monk—A Remembrance

October 29, 2017

(This article originally appeared in the July 1982 issue of Keyboard magazine.) 

As a jazz record producer for more than 30 years, Orrin Keepnews has worked with many of the leading figures in American music. His career has included long and productive associations with McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans as well as Thelonious Monk.

L. to R: Monk, Gerry Mulligan, producer Orren Keepnews (mid'-'50s). (Photo: Robert Parent)

Thelonious Monk was a legend in the world of jazz for most of his career; in the world at large, he was an even vaguer figure than that. A living legend, after all, is apt to be someone who doesn't make too many public appearances; he doesn't get written about too often, and then usually in terms more of eccentricities of word and deed than of concrete accomplishments. A jazz legend, particularly a black bebop pianist and composer with an oddball name who hasn't even been seen in public in the past half-dozen years, is so far removed from reality as we know it that he doesn't even get thought about by most people.

But one of the few things you can count on in the shifting and generally unpredictable world of American music is that the death of an artist will be closely followed by a lot of printed words. This is especially true when we're left with the rather guilty feeling that his importance warranted much more noise than was made about him during his lifetime. There is really no way to avoid this and no point in complaining about it. In our times—and particularly in the several different areas that get lumped together under the heading of "popular music"—competition for public attention is so intense that to become a major focal point necessitates some really remarkable achievement: like writing a major work, or having a number one record on the charts, or winning a poll, or dying. If that's what it takes, so be it. But when it has been death that opened the floodgates of prose (which means that it's probably the last time they will be opened), it is really quite important that what is written have more than a passing association with truth and accuracy.

I am one of perhaps a handful of people who can properly claim to be somewhat expert on the elusive subject of Thelonious Monk. I first met him back at the very start of my professional involvement with jazz, in 1948—which is so incredibly long ago that I was still several years away from producing my first album, and he had barely begun his recording career. As a result of that meeting I wrote what Monk has told me was the very first published article about him, and that magazine piece in turn was partly responsible seven years later for my becoming his producer. During the six-year period that followed, a great deal of my time and energy was poured into an intensive working relationship that resulted in thirteen albums, several of them of great importance to his career and certainly to mine and also to the overall story of contemporary jazz.

His last recording project with me was more than two decades ago, in 1960; thereafter I had little direct contact with him. In the '70s, like most people, I hardly saw or heard Monk; I had one frustrating telephone conversation with him about two years ago. However, in the years since we stopped working together I have remained constantly aware of the man and of his stature and value and influence. It is an awareness that has consistently been shared and talked about and utilized by a great many of the musicians I've been associated with during that time. Several of these men—most notably saxophonist Sonny Rollins—have shared my belief that Thelonious was in reality one of the great teachers, even though he undoubtedly never gave a formal lesson in his life. And it remains a source of pride to me to feel that I can count myself as one of his pupils.

There are many different ways of looking at Monk, and each has something to contribute to the total picture. Some of them obviously overlap; few if any are mutually exclusive. He can be thought of as a drastically unorthodox instrumentalist, composer, and bandleader (and you can choose to regard any of the three as his most important area of activity). He was a spearhead of the major musical upheaval that began in the 1940s; actually, he can be described as being among the authors of a new jazz language. As I have already noted, I am among those who consider him a significant teacher and an ongoing influence who continues even now to shape the future of jazz. And then there are those who have briefly or permanently dismissed him as a musical primitive and a naturally or deliberately flaky eccentric, much of whose work was merely an elaborate fraud.

This last description has fortunately become unfashionable by now; recent and posthumous references to his personal or musical oddities tend to treat them in a friendly way, as if he were someone's slightly peculiar uncle or an Albert Einstein-type absent-minded professor rather than a dangerous madman or the chaotic "High Priest of Bop." But in the very beginning, those last two were almost the only ways he was regarded, and it wasn't particularly friendly. Apparently, it was like that even before he formally entered the jazz world; in the magazine story that emerged from my first meeting with Monk, I noted his reluctance to talk about his first solo gigs in New York "juice joints" and quoted him as saying, "There are a lot of things you can't remember—except the heckling."

The heckling—not necessarily coming only from the customers—apparently remained a factor in the feverish climate in which bebop first took shape. The first real home of this new music was a club called Minton's Playhouse, located in a side-street Harlem hotel. It opened in 1940 with a musically tolerant manager, a former big-band leader named Teddy Hill, and a house band that included Thelonious and drummer Kenny Clarke. The club soon became notable as a place where experimentally-minded musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and guitarist Charlie Christian and sometimes even Charlie Parker would come to sit in with the regulars. This was the nucleus of a group who soon found themselves to be musically linked and who began building the repertoire and structure of a new form of jazz expression. There will always be some ambiguity and room for doubt as to how much of this was free-flowing creativity, to what extent it just happened because the circumstances were right (Monk once told me, "Nobody was sitting there trying to make up something new on purpose. Minton's was a job we were playing, that's all"), and how much was a deliberate sabotaging of what Kenny Clarke has been quoted as calling "the riff-raff" by the insiders, in order to "keep the other guys off the stand, ... they couldn't make those chord changes."

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