(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."
At Monterey Jazz Festival, 1969 (photo: Veryl Oakland).
Whatever the actual ingredients and proportions, the recipe was certainly an important one. But a bustling scene like this could not be a unified one; there was far too much creativity and personality, ego and jealousy for that. Whether his music was too different or too difficult even for this setting, or the man himself too unusual even for that freewheeling crowd, is really not possible to say conclusively, but the fact is that Thelonious was the odd man out. He was recognized as someone different and apart, whose particular approach could not really be considered as belonging to any mainstream—not even the main path of the bop revolution. In the long run, it has become quite clear that this off-center individualism was one of his most valuable attributes, that the intensely personal qualities Monk was to contribute to jazz were far more lasting than most of the flashy innovations of the early bebop years. But in the short run it seemed important to some people to downgrade the man.
An early example of this appears in a 1949 book by Leonard Feather entitled Inside Bebop. This was actually a pioneering work (aside from music magazine articles by Feather and a few others, virtually nothing analytical or even non-sensational was written on the subject in the ‘40s), and it is not at all my intention to scold Leonard for a threedecades-ago position he has long since reversed. But the book does provide a handy and unfortunately accurate example of how easy and commonplace it was to trash Monk in those days. Inside Bebop is rather breezily journalistic in tone; it includes much proper praise for Gillespie and Parker and others; and its author gives Monk the back of his hand in just two negative paragraphs that attribute (possibly correctly) to "most musicians in the bop movement" the information that this man's importance had been "grossly" overstated by "high-powered publicity." While grudgingly conceding Thelonious to be an "original thinker," Feather places most emphasis on his "lack of technique" and the news that Monk had "often fallen asleep at the piano" at Minton's. [Ed. Note: For a more recent perspective from Feather on Monk, see Keyboard, May '78.]
Part of the problem at that time actually could be traced to publicity that was rather flamboyant (although well-intentioned) and proved to be counter-productive, but could hardly be characterized as "high-powered." The publicist was the wife of the owner of Blue Note Records, then one of the first and most dedicated of the small New-York based Independent labels that played such a vital role in the early growth of contemporary jazz. They had begun to record Monk, and when his first 78 rpm singles were issued in the spring of 1948, there was a campaign identifying the pianist as the "High Priest of Bop." It was a handle that quite clearly frightened away more potential record buyers than it intrigued, and it apparently gave some people a focus for their anti-Monk feelings, but the publicity effort did have, from my point of view, at least one valuable result. It led to my first encounter with Thelonious.
I had just accepted the spare-time, nonpaying job of managing editor of an extremely esoteric little magazine called The Record Changer. Formerly a totally traditional-jazz publication, it had just been taken over by Bill Grauer (who was to be my partner when Riverside Records was formed a few years later); and Alfred Lion, the owner of Blue Note, felt we might possibly be open to some more adventurous music. So we all came together in the living room of Lion's Greenwich Village home: I was almost totally uninformed about both Monk and bebop, but in the test pressings of a tune named "Thelonious" and a few others I heard something that reached me, and with the arrogance of ignorance I proceeded on the spot to interview this already legendary, laconic eccentric.
As it turned out, my lack of background was an asset, and so was the fact that as a hide-bound traditional jazz fan, I had not yet heard anything attractive in the early bop records of Dizzy and Bird. My article appeared in the April 1948 issue of The Record Changer. It is not something I remain totally proud of; it has its factual errors and naive touches, and it consistently misspells Monk's first name by omitting the second "o"—a common enough mistake, but one I'm invariably intolerant of in others. However, not knowing in advance how I was supposed to react to Thelonious, and having previously found bop to be "frenetic, emotionless, and rhythmless," I proceeded to come up with some comments on his music that, surprisingly, I am still willing to stand behind today.
Calling his records "an outstanding example of unified small band jazz," I used phrases like "discipline and coherence," "purposeful and coordinated," and "stronger and more mature lines ... than his Harlem contemporaries." I noted his "firm rhythmic sense" and "fertile imagination," used words like "warmth," "unity," "brilliance," and found him "capable of sly, wry, satiric humor that has a rare maturity." Most remarkably, considering how much of a beginner I know myself to have been, I wrote that "he is engaged in developing an essentially original piano style" and that in his first records "he has created a band style molded around his own ideas and shaped to his own manner of playing, much as Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington did before him."
(I have long understood that the positive tone of this piece had something to do with his attitude several years later when he was approached by a fledgling record company that happened to be run by the two men who published that magazine. At that time Thelonious was recording for Prestige, another of the New York independents, but in 1955 their roster included such names as Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet, so that Monk—still classified as eccentric, musically obscure, and non-selling—was not important to them. Actually, all it took to secure his release from Prestige was the repayment of an absurdly small sum that the label had over-advanced him. I lent Monk the necessary $108.27, although Prestige did not know the source of the money, and some very important years for both Thelonious and myself lay just ahead.)
(Photo: David Redfern: Retna)
Although the thorny early relationship between Monk and some of the more 'orthodox' beboppers might have seemed at the time largely a matter of personality and temperament, it now appears clear to me that it had a great deal to do with the basic nature of his music and his creative attitudes. While it may seem strange that this iconoclast was not immediately accepted as a leader of the revolution, one reason surely was the extent to which he actually was rooted in the past. From the start, bebop was considered by its partisans as a violent and total turning away from older jazz forms, specifically a rejection of the over-arranged stagnation of big white swing bands on the one hand and the musical illiteracy of small-band traditional black jazz on the other. But there was more theory and hot-bloodedness than reality to that attitude: The most effective revolutions in the arts have always been built on adapting the past to the needs of the present, not out of thin air. Monk obviously understood this; it is evident in his music from the start. I know that on those 1947 records, strange as they sounded to me, I heard a rhythmic pulse and blues feeling that related to the jazz I was familiar with. Thelonious was clearly part of a well-defined evolutionary process.
It is surely no coincidence that of the other two pianist-bandleader-composers I had referred to in my article, Jelly Roll Morton was a celebrated early eccentric who did not really fit into the jazz mainstream of his time (and was dismissed by many as overrated), and Duke Ellington always operated in a self-contained musical universe largely of his own making. Later on, at a 1957 record date, I learned that in his formative years, growing up in the West Sixties in Manhattan, Monk had listened hard to a neighborhood resident who was a magnificent stride pianist and had been the mentor of Fats Waller. We were in the control room, checking out the playback of an unaccompanied blues, and Thelonious said quietly, "I sound just like James P. Johnson," which was an exaggeration, but an incredibly apt one.
The question of technique—was he a "good" enough keyboard performer to express himself properly—never really stopped being asked, but was actually never very important. Monk was certainly far more involved with what he had to say than with how listeners reacted to it, with creativity rather than communication. To such an artist, orthodox technique is obviously quite secondary; if something can be expressed by use of an elbow, if it takes awkward or "wrong" fingering to produce the desired dissonance, so much the better. The brief biography in the printed program at his funeral services included a protest that "contrary to the popular rumor" he was not self-taught, but as a boy and a teenager had studied privately, played church organ, and even taken courses in "theory, harmony, and arranging" at Juilliard. Thelonious would not have appreciated the point. In a very real sense he was a "primitive," following his own rules above all else. It was neither lack of learning nor lack of ability, but a deep-seated disregard for normal methods, that made him proceed in such personal and often instinctive ways.
However, it is easy to appreciate that such an approach does not make for the most suitable sideman, or a sought-after colleague in group-oriented collective experimentation. From the beginning, it was necessary for fellow musicians to understand that you did not easily jam with Monk, or collaborate with him; for the most part, you played his way or it didn't work. This meant that you had to care a great deal; in the early years, although men like drummer Max Roach, vibist Milt Jackson, and Art Blakey (who was the extremely effective drummer on those first Blue Note sides) do seem to have appreciated the importance of supporting and nurturing and above all accommodating this strange and remarkable talent, a lot of others did not.
Bebop came into being during a particularly stressful period in American life. It was unquestionably an expression of its times, and those involved a segue from the Great Depression of the '30s into World War II and on to the chaotic post-war years. The new jazz was pretty accurately described by clichés like "the music of a neurotic age"; its soloists were concerned almost exclusively with harmonic variations; and there was virtually no room in its repertoire for pretty ballads. Yet Monk, then as always, was primarily a melodist: his improvisations most often stayed recognizably close to the tune, and he is the composer of what has to be considered one of the most beautiful short pieces of music written in twentieth-century America, the remarkable '"Round Midnight." All in all, it really wasn't his time, which makes his degree of impact on it even more impressive.
By the mid-'50s, when I began to produce his records, things were ready for a change. Modern jazz had been around long enough to feel somewhat more secure and possibly less neurotic, and a second wave of young musicians had come along, hard on the heels of the first, but in many instances able to be a good deal more objective than the bop pioneers. To many of the newer players—Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane are the two most notable examples—the unique values of Thelonious were quickly apparent. They seemed to have no real trouble understanding his ability to combine angular dissonances with deeply emotional lyricism, his contemporary application of blues roots, his use of space and simplicity (in sharp contrast to the overflowing quantities of notes so many bebop players used to display the strength of their chops). The turnaround was swift, once it began. An attitude of respect and appreciation for Monk surfaced among younger musicians; I like to think it was aided by the fact that they could now hear him clearly and directly on a growing body of recorded work.
In the summer of 1957 Monk again became able, after a six-year lapse, to perform in New York City nightclubs. (A 60-day jail term, for an obviously minor drug bust, had made him ineligible for the thennecessary police department "cabaret card"—in those days The Man actively protected club-going adults from being entertained by ex-cons—thus seriously curtailing his public appearances.) He began with an historic halfyear stand at a club called The Five Spot, with a quartet featuring John Coltrane, who was then between two other major associations with Miles Davis groups. The illustrative irony here lies in the fact that the Five Spot period, which Trane always stressed as a pivotal time in his development, came just two and a half years after a legendary Prestige record session at which Miles and Monk reportedly almost squared off after Davis ordered the pianist to lay out during a trumpet solo. That's a pretty good symbol of the changing tides, but of at least equal importance was the unqualified enthusiasm of Sonny Rollins, the first major artist to make it clear that he was a disciple of Monk. With men as highly regarded as these acknowledging his mastery (Coltrane was quoted as calling Thelonious "one of the true greats of all time" and described himself as "fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with him"), the rest of the jazz world was quick to follow. In an area to which I was very sensitive, I could note with both satisfaction and amusement the quick change in his Down Beat record reviews from lukewarm or less to their top 5-star rating.
Backstage at the Five Spot, 1967, with the Baroness Koenigswarter.
I have only recently become aware of a Sonny Rollins interview in which he recalled his late '60s retirement of sorts, involving some time in India. "When I ... found out what a real guru was—how they were treated and what they represented—I realized that Monk was my guru and it was ... time to get back to work on what I do best." Even though Sonny may not have realized it until then, he really had been acting on that belief for many years—just as in my case, although I hadn't made the comparison before reading his remarks, it was equally true that in the late 1950s Monk had been my guru. In recent years Rollins and I have talked more than once about Thelonious' importance as a teacher, and it is clear that in very different ways he contributed greatly to the early shaping of both Sonny's career and mine.
For me it was initially a matter of a very tough period of on-the-job training, of apprenticing myself to a hard master. In the liner notes to only my third album with Monk, I described him as "a perfectionist ... who drives the others as hard as he drives himself—which is possibly a little unfair of him." In writing that, I was unquestionably referring to myself as much as the players. The music was tough; the artist knew exactly what results he wanted (regardless of whether his associates considered those results to be possible); and he was as uncompromising as he was unconventional. The other musicians were driven by their own pride as well as by their feelings of respect, awe, and/or love (although not always of understanding) for this man. Such a combination inevitably led to a good deal of tension in the studio. I soon learned that it was my responsibility to relieve that condition as swiftly as possible. Looking back at that period, I realize that things were made somewhat more difficult by some of the ground rules and economic necessities of the era. For one major example, neither the time nor the money for adequate rehearsal was likely to be available; for another, it was nevertheless assumed that a jazz album could be recorded in a single day, with almost everything done in one take. I eventually worked my way through to a formula that combined those incompatible elements: For the most part, I accepted the requirement of working too quickly and without rehearsal, but insisted on at least two days in the studio and as many takes as the leader and I considered necessary. It was my work with Thelonious more than anything else that helped shape this approach. It was also from sessions with him that I got my priorities straight about a number of other things.
It is possible that, as with the 1948 interview, I was able to survive and succeed because I was too ignorant to be properly afraid. Perhaps, too, the fact that I really valued his music got through to Monk and helped—and over the years it has become an iron-bound law for me (one that I rarely break, and invariably regret it when I do) not to attempt to deal with a musician whose work I don't feel strongly about. I do know that I would have been in serious trouble if I had attempted an authoritarian pose in the studio, but I saw my primary role as that of a catalytic agent, providing optimum conditions for the expression of his creativity, and that attitude has worked out pretty well for me ever since. This involves a basic premise I suspect some producers have never come to understand, that in jazz (maybe not everywhere, but certainly in jazz) the artist is what it's all about. His music and personality are what you are trying to express, not your own, so that each one you work with may call for a different approach, a separate working relationship. Flexibility is far more valuable to a jazz producer than a specific personal style.
Being aware of the circumstances of Monk's early career made it easy enough for me to understand that he might well be carrying a very large chip on his shoulder and easily get rather testy and belligerent during a session. Among the lessons this should teach a young producer is: If the artist in the studio is feeling a draft, for whatever reason, that's your problem rather than his; you're supposed to remember that your primary goal is to produce the best possible record.
There is, of course, a corollary to that lesson, also Monk-taught: don't roll over and play dead, either. The scheduled initial session for our fourth album, a solo date, never took place because he arrived at the studio nearly an hour and a half late (following a series of "he's on his way" phone calls). More in anger than in sorrow, I delivered a fairly pompous lecture about my need to respect myself and informing him that, while I'd accept a half-hour lateness as close enough for jazz (a timeframe I've held to ever since), he needn't bother to come any later than that because I would have left. We set a new date; I arrived about fifteen minutes early; and there in the control room sat Thelonious, waiting for me. He gave me that huge slow smile of his and asked, very quietly: "What kept you?" It was an extremely successful session.
Life with Monk was not often very relaxed, but once I had—with his help—gotten through my apprenticeship and become a well-schooled professional, it was a lot less tense. Having survived his basic training, having become aware that severe crises, last-minute major adjustments, and personality clashes are the routine facts of recording life, I could never be frightened by any musician or shaken up by any in-studio problem.
I like to think that my overall attitude and philosophy is fundamentally a product of my own instincts, intellect, and taste. But that is certainly part of what Sonny Rollins meant by choosing the term "guru" rather than simply "teacher"—much of Monk's special magic lay in the fact that you could gain from him whatever you most needed to enhance what was already at least potentially there. Sonny, for example, clearly found reinforcement of his own belief in the importance of humor in his music. And in the course of developing from a young player often accused of harsh and unemotional tone into a mature master of the art of balladry, he surely had absorbed a basic Monk message on how to add beauty and lyricism without losing toughness.
In a 1960 Down Beat article in which Coltrane refers to the time he spent with Thelonious, there is an extremely appropriate reference to Monk's uniquely oblique way of imparting knowledge without actually appearing to instruct. "I felt I learned from him in every way—through the senses, theoretically, technically. I would talk to Monk about musical problems, and he would sit at the piano and show me the answers just by playing them. I could watch him play and find out the things I wanted to know. Also, I could see a lot of things that I didn't know about at all.
One important aspect of Monk's special approach to his music was the specific value he seemed to place on each individual musician he was involved with. He was a tough and demanding bandleader, but he rarely seemed to regard those who worked for him as merely amorphous sidemen. As I had surmised the first time I heard him, he integrated the functions of composer, leader, and pianist in a manner quite comparable to Ellington's. He thought of the band's sound as being created by individuals, not just by instruments, so that you could not accurately say that when Coltrane left he was replaced by Johnny Griffin. The fact that Griffin was a very different kind of tenor saxophone player was not only obvious to Thelonious, it was something for him to utilize: That kind of change in personnel meant that even without changes in repertoire the material he played would be altered, rearranged, made new.
This is an essential but often undervalued element in improvisatory music. It involves a lot more than just trying to play a different solo than you did last time; it means being able to approach the same specific melody or set of chord changes in a variety of ways under changing circumstances. Thelonious was a master of this; since he concentrated largely on his own compositions and didn't really write all that many pieces, tracing his recorded repertoire from its Blue Note beginnings through Prestige, Riverside, and Columbia turns up a whole array of fascinating examples of how the passage of time and changes in instrumentation or in key personnel would lead to major reinterpretations of "Off Minor'' or "Well, You Needn't" or "Monk's Mood" or (time and time again) "'Round Midnight."
And it helped that his taste in sidemen was generally excellent. I know that I learned to pay close attention to his spoken or implied recommendations; among the players I either first heard or first really heard through Monk were Rollins, Coltrane, Griffin, Blakey, trumpeter Clark Terry, trumpeter/bandleader Thad Jones, bassist Wilbur Ware, and saxophonist Charlie Rouse—and I've probably omitted more than a few.
It should be noted that while Monk himself enjoyed feeling free to reshape and newly interpret his own writing, not too many other musicians have really been able to indulge in quite the same luxury. Playing his tunes is, at best, hard work. Thelonious was a remarkable composer, but his material can be basically divided into two categories: difficult and impossible. Only" 'Round Midnight," which seems as simple as any pop melody, has had widespread acceptance—and even that richly lyrical ballad is wickedly deceptive. Its apparent simplicity masks some tricky undercurrents; compared to any Monk recording of it, any other version probably cheats a little here and goes astray a bit there—and most people play the incorrect release that Miles Davis resorted to when he recorded it.
In the difficult category are selections like those mentioned in the preceding paragraph and just a few more ("I Mean You," "Straight, No Chaser'') that can be handled by strong musicians willing to give themselves a strenuous workout. Then there are the impossible ones: compositions I sometimes suspect he wrote as a form of nose-thumbing revenge on those who claimed he was devoid of technique, which I have seen drive normally unflappable master players straight up the walls of recording studios. Try your hand at, say, "Brilliant Corners" or "Jackie-ing" and you'll wind up feeling even more in awe of this man.
I am aware that I have, often enough, referred to Thelonious as "eccentric," but I don't feel I have done much of a job of documenting that claim. The problem is that his eccentricity was entirely natural and authentic. In no way was it a pose; consequently, he rarely did or said overtly 'funny' things. Never doubt that he was an original, a man who in many different ways danced only to his own rhythm and adhered only to his own standards. But so many of the anecdotes I remember most vividly turn out, on reexamination, to have been incisive and appropriate rather than merely amusing. His already-noted reference to sounding like James P. Johnson, for one; or the advice he gave Clark Terry while rehearsing a tune at a record date. "Don't pay any attention to what I'm playing behind you now," he recommended, "because when we record I might play something completely different and it'll just confuse you."
However, weird circumstances did have a habit of happening around him. One evening in the studio, he asked to have the piano moved just a few feet to give him better eye contact with the other musicians, a quite reasonable request. The engineer and a couple of bystanders hastened to oblige—and one front leg of a perfectly normal Steinway managed to collapse. Then there is an incident that I've always treasured as a measure of both what could go wrong and how he could save the day. While we were recording a 1959 concert, using only one tape machine set up just off-stage, Monk either forgot or disdained to check with me, as pre-arranged, at the end of a number. As a result, he began the next selection while we were still changing reels, losing for us a sizeable chunk of the opening chorus. Made aware of his error, he informed the audience that "the engineers loused up" and proceeded to repeat, as an encore, the otherwise-incomplete tune!
At the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival, with Charlie Rouse.
By 1961, there was enough world-wide appreciation of Thelonious to make him attractive to a major label; his advisors moved him upward to Columbia, and our working association came to an end. My admiration for the man remained, but there was very little opportunity for direct contact. I don't feel immodest in saying that our years together included high points in his recording career that were never again approached: We had experimented with groups of various sizes and had combined Monk with some very major colleagues (Coltrane, Rollins, Gerry Mulligan, Coleman Hawkins); for whatever reasons, almost all his subsequent recorded work was with his regular working quartet.
By the mid-1970s, of course, he had completed a gradual, total and permanent withdrawal from activity. I have no expert knowledge at all of his last years, but it would seem to involve physical illness and deterioration, which certainly must have added to his always-present degree of emotional detachment from the world at large.
My last words with Monk came almost two years ago. While on a trip to New York, I had a sudden impulse to telephone him; the conversation ran approximately like this:
“Thelonious, are you touching the piano at all these days?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Do you want to get back to playing?”
“No, I don't.”
“I'm only in town for a few days; would you like me to come and visit, talk about the old days?”
“No, I wouldn't.”
When I repeated this to Barry Harris, the pianist who was much closer to him than almost anyone else in the last years, he said: “You're lucky. You got complete sentences. With most people he just says, ‘No.’”
If I were to make a guess, I'd conclude that he may just have worn down and stopped caring, that the roller-coaster aspects of being a performing artist in our times had finally taken its toll. From an early '60s peak that even saw his picture on the cover of Time magazine, this once-obscure pianist had slid back towards obscurity. To someone who had never really cared all that much about communicating with the public, it couldn't have seemed worth the effort to start climbing again. Towards the end he reportedly had ignored or rejected some very fancy offers from would-be promoters of comeback concerts. I hope those reports are accurate; I would like to think that he simply felt he had said all he cared to say to any of us.
The legacy he left remains very much in evidence: his recordings and compositions, the work of those he influenced in various ways. He taught quite a few people, directly and indirectly, some very important lessons: to play the way you feel you have to, to be intolerant of musical (and other) conventions and dogma, not to compromise—admonitions that are, for most of us, impossible to follow completely. But even to add a little of his approach to your music or life can be valuable. Thelonious Monk was a very unusual human being and extremely good at what he did. I'm glad that I was able to know him and work with him.