Interview: Ashley Kahn on Thelonious Monk's Legacy

Image placeholder title

October 10th, 2017 marks the centenary of Thelonious Monk's birth. What’s the most interesting thing for you in terms of this anniversary?
For me, it’s just the enduring magic of what he created, which had its own logic, and which had its own way of approaching a very modern, edgy, angular kind of sound, but that was firmly based in the harmonic ideas that were coming out of what’s commonly referred to as bebop, but which is pretty much generally modern jazz.

What happened from the late ‘30s into the early ‘40s at the hands of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, etc., is that someone had to be there to kind of codify it. Someone had to be there to give it a sense of it being a system that could be learned and appropriated and shared and passed on. And the best person for all of this was someone, obviously, who was going to be sitting at a keyboard, because a chordal instrument is obviously going to be better than trying to do this on a melody instrument. And Thelonious Monk was that person.

At the same time, he’s this incredible player. The way that he performed on piano, some would say even attacked the piano; if you look at videos of him it’s almost like he is playing a percussion instrument, and of course the piano in its most basic sense is a percussion instrument. Those are hammers hitting strings. But the way that he approached it, he looks more like a conga player coming out the Caribbean. That ain’t no classical technique. He’s not curling his fingers. But it’s not just about the technique.

For me, what captures best that kind of modern edginess that is Monk’s vocabulary is a tune that he created called “Ugly Beauty.” It’s a great tune, but the actual concept of ugly beauty; the idea that you have to kind of “go against”; it’s the whole thing about rule breaking and thinking outside the norms of today to get at what musical possibilities exist in the future.

He was a visionary. He was able to come up with this idea that, where music was going, it was going to have to play around with accepted harmony, accepted structures, accepted ideas of what is beautiful and what is not. And that’s why I think a title like “Ugly Beauty,” for me, kind of captures that Monk aesthetic.

And Monk was the first one to confound me. When I discovered him in my teen years, I just couldn’t understand it. It sounded so wrong and yet, so right at the same time.

What was it like writing liner notes for Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane: Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings?
Any time I’m writing about Monk, I’m trying to get back to that original spark—like, Life before Monk and then Life after Monk. The idea that he is so radical, in what music was before and what would come after, that he can’t help but continue to be this door-opener in the concept of what music is and can be; what beauty in music can be.

Image placeholder title

So, trying to get back to that original kind of moment when you’re teaching yourself to listen to Monk is what I try and do whenever I write about him and find that moment when that lightbulb went off and I go, “Oh my god, I get it.” I see this and understand that this guy was creating his own logic, his own language, and then at the same time I don’t want to go overboard.

As any writer of music will tell you, the last thing that’s going to convince someone is by overusing the terms “awesome” or “great,” or “classic” or “timeless.” You need to figure out which pieces of music you want to direct the reader to and what is the lesson coming out of “Criss-Cross” or “Misterioso,” or the Blue Note recordings when he’s still getting it together.

I love the roughness of the Blue Note recordings in’48-’49 because it’s not that developed yet; not as it will be in the ‘50s. And, of course, part of the bebop revolution was finding the right players to help define this new system. It’s not until Monk gets with Art Blakey, not until Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker get with Max Roach, do they find that all these important rhythmic components to this new way of thinking about harmony, improvisation, blues-based performance, etc., that it was the bebop revolution.

It’s interesting when you listen to Monk after that, you would never know he was part of that revolution. His music seems really distant from the youthful power of the bebop era.
Exactly. Well, he was not about these huge flights of unbelievably creative, impromptu lines. That was Bud Powell’s strength. That’s what Bud Powell was great for. He was the piano equivalent of a Charlie Parker and a Dizzy Gillespie.

What Monk was about was closer to where Miles Davis would go with the use of space, with the use of that sort of internal dialogue that’s going on with the player and the listener being kind of invited in, so that the pauses become so dramatic that it feels like you’re inside his head as he’s kind of deciding “what is the next note that I’m going to play and why is it going to be this, or what is the next chord?”

So, his approach as a player really needs to be pulled aside from other upper-register-all-the-way-down-the-lower-register bebop musicians, and the density of the playing that Bird and Diz and Bud Powell had. That wasn’t what Monk was about. Monk was about inventing these melodic, edgy, discordant lines—in the moment.

I think it was Whitney Balliett, the longtime New Yorker jazz writer, who famously said that Monk’s compositions sound like solos; sound like improvisations that have been crystalized. Once you really grasp what he’s saying, again, a lightbulb goes off and you go, “Oh my God, now I understand him even better.” He probably invented these melodies right there on the bandstand, went home, wrote them down, and that’s it. Not that other people don’t do that. But the way that he solos on something as simple as, say, a blues, you can hear in those solos other Monk tunes possibly coming to the surface.

That’s an interesting point because other jazz composers of that era were quite prolific. But if you look at the entire composition list of Monk over his lifetime, it seems rather small by comparison.
Yeah. It does and it doesn’t. There were a lot of tunes out there that just got recorded one time, and one time only. They never really found their way into the general, shared songbook of other players. If you think of Monk’s greatest hits, his Top 10, you think of something like “Straight, No Chaser”; people cover it again and again and again. There are a lot of tunes that appeared just once on an album and that was it. But yeah, it’s not that huge of a catalogue of tunes. Nonetheless, each one is so radical.

There are certain rock and pop artists that have their song craft so developed—let’s say a Steely Dan or Paul Simon—there ain’t no filler on any of their recordings. Every song by Simon and Garfunkel is really meticulously crafted. Steely Dan, same thing. And I would say in that same way, in any and every one of his tunes, Monk took his time with it; he developed it. So, I’d rather have quality than quantity any day.

That’s the point I was getting at. His pieces are not the kind that would necessarily show up in a fake book because they’re not based on standard tune structures of their day. Some of his pieces go in very odd directions.

For example, on disc 2 of the soundtrack to Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960, there’s a section where Monk is rehearsing Light Blue with drummer Art Taylor, and they’re trying to figure out how this unusual drum pattern fits within the tune. They just keep starting and stopping and starting and stopping. You can hear that it’s not trivial for these players to figure out what Monk was thinking.
Yeah. He definitely went against common knowledge, common practice, again and again and again.

Image placeholder title

What I find very interesting is Monk is often discussed as this phenomenon that suddenly appeared, stuck around for a while, then he got sick by the early ‘70s, and then passed in 1982. However, you get a sense of development and progress when you listen to certain tunes as they continue to be developed by him over time, especially from the mid to late ‘40s on into the early ‘60s. There’s an evolution of style in which he is developing ideas and then, much like a Coltrane or a Miles, is pushing forward. The thing is, he was so much within his own world and he was so unique that we just get the sense that Monk is Monk is Monk, not the idea of how he was able to develop over time. So, this kind of peek behind the creative curtain that you’re describing is a moment to say, “Oh yeah, he was always creating.”

One of the other stories that I love is from Miles Davis’ autobiography. Famously, Miles was able to jettison himself out of the independent jazz world and on to a major label as a result of performing “’Round Midnight,” with Monk in the band, at an all-star show at the Newport Jazz Festival in its second year, 1954. In his autobiography, he talks about driving back home from Newport to New York and Monk is livid because Miles had changed the structure. He had not respected the harmonic structure of his classic tune. And that was Miles, all the time: Miles was always simplifying, clarifying certain melodies and harmonic structures in his move away from bebop.

But here it is, 1954. Who does this young punk think he is changing my tune? Apparently, the argument got so bad that Monk said, “Stop the car,” and he got out of the car on the Connecticut Turnpike and found his own way home.

Yeah. So, you talk about being meticulous. This guy was very, very adamant about what he was creating. He was very serious.

To what degree did he influence other players in those early years?
That’s a good question. I would say that probably the best example of that is the summer of ’57, when Miles had kicked Coltrane out of his band. Coltrane was suddenly a free agent, and he goes and spends something like five straight weeks with Monk playing at the Five Spot—a legendary run. Two years later, of course, Ornette Coleman would come to that same venue and have a big impact.

Image placeholder title

But in ’57, it was Monk with Trane, and there’s this famous essay by Amiri Baraka—Leroi Jones, back then—where he says that, at the start of the run, Coltrane really didn’t know what he was in for. He sounded a little bit lost, and that Monk kind of kept at it with him, and he kept at it with Monk. And, of course, Coltrane’s music would never be the same after those five weeks. It was like he was going to grad school. Whatever he had learned with Miles was like high school compared to what he was learning with Monk as far as harmonic theory, and Monk took the time to explain it to him. Coltrane is famous for influencing others, but I think this is probably one of the best examples where Monk took these players and molded them.

So, the long answer to your question is that I truly believe that Monk heard stuff, not only in his head about his own compositions, but he heard stuff coming out of the instruments of other players. In fact, as a result of that summer together, Coltrane is interviewed in DownBeat, and he talks about how Monk showed him certain things he could do on the saxophone that he didn’t know himself. You scratch your head and go, “Wait a minute: Coltrane’s the scientist of the saxophone and he’s saying that this piano player and composer was showing him stuff on his instrument?” That says a lot to me about how clear and consistent a vision Monk had in his head of what his music should be, and how it should sound, utilizing the players of the day. Just on saxophone, you have Coltrane, Johnny Griffin, Charlie Rouse, Sonny Rollins—players like that.

Do you see anybody in the current scene that has taken what Monk was doing to a new level, or that has that sort of visionary quality in their work?
I see others who sort of came up right after him who were kind of both influenced by Monk and were trying to develop their own vocabulary and their own kind of musical world, like Herbie Nichols, Andrew Hill, and Herbie Hancock to a certain degree. But nowadays, it would be someone who we would almost scratch our heads over because that’s how most of the world was dealing with Monk the first 10 or 15 years of his career (before he ended up on the cover of Time magazine).

But I would say right now, for my money, it would be someone like David Virelles from Cuba. His conception is so angular and unique, and you know it’s him right away. He often plays in Ravi Coltrane’s band. He just released his second ECM album. He’s also someone who is open to using electronics and processing. And, of course, being from Cuba, he’s bringing in a lot of the folkloric kind of roots, as well and mixing it all together. So, someone like him: He definitely has his own kind of vocabulary.

And Vijay Iyer. David is a young, fresh voice, but I’d say Vijay is more developed. And if you listen to Vijay’s recordings of Monk—I think he did “Evidence” with that trio that he has with Marcus Gilmore on drums—he’s developing his own approach.

One of the amazing things about Monk is that, when you take a step away from his own compositions for a second and see which standards he kept in his repertoire throughout his whole career (and there were a handful, like “Nice Work If You Can Get It”), he’s straight out of the stride tradition. He’s one step away from Duke. He’s one step away from Fats Waller. He never loses it.

If you hear the stuff from 1971 on the Black Lion label, from when he did that all-star tour (with Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Kai Winding and Sonny Stitt in the band), he does a bunch of standards, so you can compare them to what he was doing when he was with Prestige—and even way back [to what he was doing] in the ‘40s. It’s very interesting to hear how his concept on standards develops over that time, too.

Image placeholder title

Are there any recordings by Monk that listeners should steer away from?
There’s always something to learn from Monk. The only reason why you might want to ignore a release is because of production values or something like that; or a mismatch of who he’s playing with.

But, hell no. I don’t think there’s anything that should be ignored. Because if you’re going to take a deep dive into an artist’s work—and everyone should, at some point—Monk is one of those down-the-rabbit-hole journeys in music that are just so much fun to do and, therefore, you should never close yourself off to anything that he did.

Bio: Ashley Kahn is a journalist, producer, historian, and author of the liner notes for Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane: Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings (Craft Recordings)