Thelonious Monk

September 29, 2017

At the Open Door, early '50s.

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

There was a time when Thelonious Sphere Monk was the best-kept secret in Jazz. Musicians knew who he was—they didn’t necessarily know what to think of him, but they knew him. They name alone was enough to fix the man in anyone’s brain. Yet, even after the public had memorized the hipster honor roll in the late ‘40s—Bird, Diz, Fats (Navarro, of course)—they only had a shadowy impression of Monk, a dark presence lurking behind the piano at Minton’s, his 200-pound frame obscured by the smoke and his spare keyboard fills drowned by one apoplectic bebop horn solo after another.

Later, of course, all that changed. Not only did Monk become well known, he became a hot property. He won the
Down Beat Critics Poll in 1958 and ’59, signaling his acceptance in the jazz establishment. He even found himself on the cover of Time magazine in 1964. (He had originally been slated for the Nov. 25, 1963 cover, but President Kennedy’s assassination held the story up.) Now the entire country knew his name, courtesy of the Luce publishing empire.

By this time, the Monk legend had already taken root. People who would never bother to hear his music knew of his many hats, his little dances onstage, his long solitary walks, his elliptical ruminations and moody silences. Although he was finally playing concerts, even making television appearance, he was paying a price. He hadn’t changed, neither to accommodate nor to spite his idolaters, but in this brighter glare it was still hard to see him for what he really was. In the eyes of the public, he remained an enigma.

And in his last days, Monk slipped back into the shadows. After only a few sporadic appearances in the '70s, he retired to the New Jersey home of his devoted longtime friend, the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter. There he rested in solitude and silence, sinking with a slow tragic grace into the realm of legend even before his death on February 16, 1982. He was 64.

From start to finish, Thelonious Monk was a private man, not given to rambling on about himself. He would rarely grant interviews, and when he did, as often as not, he would stubbornly refuse to discuss his work; to one persistent writer, he repeatedly responded, "Get the records, sit down, and dig." Clearly, in his view, the answers to any questions about music were in the music itself. One gets the impression that Monk was irritated or amused, depending on his mood at the moment, with earnest efforts to find the essence of his art in words rather than sounds.

This surely is a sign of Monk's purity as an artist. Music is at the center of most musicians' lives, but in Monk that center stretched nearly to the surface, dominating his view of the world, leaving practically everything else—excluding his ties to his wife Nellie and their family—incidental. As Charlie Rouse, who played sax for years in Monk's quartet, noted, "Monk thinks only of music." So absorbed was he in jazz that he would walk the New York streets for hours or stand still on a corner near his apartment on West 63rd Street, staring into his private landscape and running new songs and sounds through his mind. As he himself succinctly explained it, "I just walk and dig."

Certainly, this kind of attitude affected his ways of communication; if music speaks for itself, what more is there to say? More subtly, though, it affected the way he played, leading him down twisting paths toward a highly individual flat-fingered system on the keyboard. Some pianists chased after the spirits of Art Tatum and, later, Bud Powell, using traditional concepts of technique as a key to unlock their own musical messages. To someone like Monk, these same old keys might seem to fit only the same old locks. To get inside new doors, a new combination had to be found.

Audiences who were used to familiar runs and chords had a lot of trouble with Monk's coalescing style in the ' 40s. Critic Paul Bacon was one of the few observers who could get past the general perception of Monk as an eccentric who cultivated odd habits to make up for a deficient technique. Monk "has the most expressive feeling I can find in any musician playing now," he wrote in Down Beat, "but it has cost Monk something to play as he does ... 50-percent of his technique. He relies so much on absolute musical reflex that Horowitz's style might be unequal to the job."

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