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."
At the Spotlight Club, 1944 (L. to R.): Coleman Hawkins, Benny Harris, Don Byas, Monk, Denzel Best, Eddie Robinson.
Today there is little doubt that Monk had all the chops he needed, and more. Apparently, he had the facility to follow in Tatum's rococo footsteps, but at one point he consciously decided he couldn't do so without being false to the music echoing in his mind. The late Mary Lou Williams once looked back to her first encounter with a young Thelonious: "While Monk was in Kaycee [Kansas City] he jammed every night, really used to blow on piano, employing a lot more technique than he does today. Monk plays the way he does now because he got fed up. I know how Monk can play. He told me he was sick of having musicians play the same thing the same way all the time."
We can look ever further back to see early signs of Monk's now familiar style. As a boy, he seated himself for hours behind the Steinway grand his family had gotten for him, practicing for hours, not just listening to the combinations he was working out on the keys, but watching the movements they produced. A mirror had been mounted on the ceiling over the piano, reflecting the rise and fall of the hammers, the shifting of the dampers, as he played. The visual balance, as well as the sounds, pleased him.
Monk's birthdate and place were for a while a matter of debate. When asked to clarify them by Down Beat in 1956, he replied, "When shall I be born? I'm just playing a game like everyone else." Subsequent research pinpointed the day—October 10, 1917—and place—Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He was named after his father; his mother, Barbara, was a former civil service employee, a Jehovah's Witness, and a strict disciplinarian.
Monk showed an early interest in music. A friend of the family had given them a player piano, and Thelonious was entranced at the sight of the keys magically rising and falling as the piano roll wound inside. At five or six he began picking melodies out on his own, and soon was teaching himself to read by watching over his older sister's shoulder as she took lessons.
In 1924 the Monks moved up to the San Juan Hill section of New York City, near the Hudson River. Shortly after that the father, suffering from a long illness, went back down south to recover, leaving his wife to raise their three children. By now Thelonious was showing great promise. At P.S. 141, and later at Stuyvesant High School, he excelled not only in music, but in physics, math, and basketball as well. Despite his family's shallow finances, his mother did what she could to encourage his talent. She somehow managed to bring a Steinway baby grand into the house, and when Thelonious was 11 years old she began paying for weekly piano lessons. Although musical scholarships to neighborhood kids were available, and Monk's gifts were evident, the scholarship administrators anticipated puzzled jazz traditionalists of the future by deeming the child too musically unorthodox to invest in.
She also got him his first gigs, accompanying the Baptist choir in which she sang. For two years Monk played organ and piano at the church for his mother; eventually she would return the favor by attending as many of his club dates as she could. By the end of his stint there, he had picked up some solid grounding in the gospel style, which stayed with him throughout his career. Many years later, when asked to bring a new Monk composition to a recording session, he showed up with his favorite old hymn, "Abide With Me," which, he solemnly pointed out, was composed by one William H. Monk. (Interestingly," Abide With Me" was also the favorite hymn of Fats Waller.)
At the Open Door, Sept. 13, 1953 (L. to R.): Charles Mingus, Roy Haynes, Monk, Charlie Parker.
But soon a new musical love made its way into Monk's life. Jazz was alive in the city streets. One of the kings of New York's piano jazz scene, James P. Johnson, lived near the Monk household, and a number of clubs were in the area too. Thelonious absorbed this music, learned the principles of band arrangement at a local community center, and began playing with a trio at the age of 13, making his debut that summer in a New York bar and grill. At 14 he made his entrance into the rent party circuit, where solo pianists matched themselves against their competitors in festive musical combat. He also won at the Apollo Theatre's famous weekly Wednesday amateur music contests; in fact, he won so many times that he was eventually banned from the event.
But it was gospel music that first took Monk on the road as a professional musician. At age 16 he left school to travel for a little over a year with a woman evangelical faith healer and preacher; it was during a stopover with her in Kansas City that Monk and Mary Lou Williams first met. Even then, she later recalled, he was exploring new sounds on the piano, producing what she would characterize as "those frozen sounds."
On his return to New York, Monk began scuffling for work, starting with non-union jobs. It was a tough regimen; soon he was playing seven nights a week and taking home $20 for the entire week's labor. He organized his first group in 1939, after working with a band at Kelly's Stable on 52nd Street. Soon Monk landed a gig as resident pianist at a new club, but this one would prove to be more than just another jazz dungeon.
It was called Minton's, named after the owner, Henry Minton, a well-known figure on the city's music scene. Before opening this establishment, Minton had run the Rhythm Club, a popular hangout for an earlier generation of New York piano greats, including Fats Waller, Willie "the Lion" Smith, and the rest of the Harlem stride pianists. In the early '40s, he appointed bandleader Teddy Hill to manage Minton's, with instructions to find a house pianist. It was on the recommendation of drummer Kenny Clarke that Hill signed Monk.
Looking back on his stint at Minton's from the vantage point of the '60s, Monk would recall, "I was just playing a gig, trying to play music. While I was at Minton's, anybody sat in if he could play. I never bothered anybody." But others remember it differently. The early '40s was a time of restless innovation. A group of young musicians who were dissatisfied with their ensemble work in swing bands began searching for new modes of expression in smaller groups, challenging their technical and creative resources in a musical language they were defining as they went along in jam sessions and discussions that stretched past the far side of midnight.
According to jazz folklore, this activity centered on Minton's, and as the house pianist there, Monk was at the eye of what would become the bebop hurricane.
At the Five Spot, 1957 (L. to R.): John Coltrane, Monk, Shadow Wilson
Our earliest recordings of Monk stem from this period. In 1941 one Jerry Newman went down to Minton's to record the great guitarist Charlie Christian. Monk appears on two of the resulting cuts: "Topsy," later retitled "Swing To Bop," and "Stompin' At The Savoy." Subsequently released in 1947 and now out of print, they show the young pianist in a state of transition, with swinging singlenote runs, especially on "Savoy," mixed with rhythmic exchanges between him and drummer Kenny Clarke that definitely reach beyond the vocabulary of swing.
Bop, with its light-speed tempos, fingerbreaking lines, and bizarre syncopations, was music designed for the jazz virtuoso. Much of its complexity stemmed from a conscious decision by its pioneers to come up with something so difficult to play that inferior musicians would be driven from the stage. So, on afternoons before the evening sets at Minton's, Monk, Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie, trumpeter Joe Guy, and sometimes Charlie Parker would meet and sketch out a new sequence of chord changes to be unveiled that night. Much of what they came up with has been long forgotten, mainly because the tunes were being written for virtuosic display, rather than for posterity.
But some have survived, including some of Monk's first efforts at composition. More than anyone else in the Minton's crowd, Monk showed a knack for writing. This in itself set him apart from most of the other players. Years before his piano work would be taken seriously, he would be known for his composing. In fact, most of the classic Monk tunes, such as "Blue Monk," "Epistrophy," and" 'Round Midnight," were written during his gig at Minton's or before 1951.
Had he never played a note at the piano, Monk would still have left his mark on jazz players everywhere through his compositions. They have been recorded exhaustively, and performed at countless jam sessions. But though he frequently wrote away from the piano while strolling through his neighborhood, his piano playing and composing are closely tied together. This becomes clear when one listens to his treatments of other people's tunes. In his various recorded versions of "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," for instance, his improvisations are more than variations on the melody; he goes beyond that, altering the structural essence of the song by weaving his familiar minor ninths around the theme as if it had been written for that purpose.
The more one listens to Monk's records from the early bebop era, the more apparent it becomes that he stood apart from everyone else in that style. Gunther Schuller commented on this in Jazz Review [Nov. 1958): "Monk was never the bopper so many people thought he was, and he was never 'cool' in the bop sense. One searches in vain for the atmosphere and clichés of the bop era ... and one finds only Monk—original, daring, blunt, occasionally crude, and witty."
The most apparent difference, his avoidance of pyrotechnics, has already been mentioned. On another level, the Harlem stride tradition, implicitly rejected by many bop modernists, left an indelible imprint on Monk, though he seemed at times to parody the stride style or use it as a contrast to what the listener might expect. His minor ninths, voiced more frequently, starkly, and prominently than usual among bop pianists, may have stemmed, Schuller speculates, from Monk's childhood attempts to strike octaves with his smaller-than-average reach. Then there was his preoccupation with wholetone runs, which first surfaced in four 78 rpm recordings he made in 1944 on the Joe Davis label with Coleman Hawkins, though this was a logical extension of the boppers' interest in diminished fifths.
In fact, Monk had an ambivalent attitude toward the bop style. In an interview with Nat Hentoff in the now-defunct Nugget magazine, he lashed out at his compatriots: "They molest! They magnify! They exaggerate!" Later, he spoke more analytically: "They don't pay enough attention to swing undefined, and that goes both for the horns and the rhythm section. They don't know where to put those bops." When asked what the difference was between their style and his, Monk explained, "They think differently harmonically. They play mostly stuff that's based on chords of other things, like the blues and 'I Got Rhythm.' I like the whole song, melody and chord structure, to be different. I make up my own chords and melodies.''
And yet it was the more extroverted bop players who stole the spotlight in the ' 40s. For all the genius of Charlie Parker, the bop prototype, it proved easier to imitate his flashy intricate runs than to duplicate the mysterious substance of Monk's simple lines and chords. Bud Powell, not Monk, became the best-known pianist in that style. Ironically, Monk had helped Powell gain a foothold at Minton's, insisting he be allowed to sit in when Clarke, Gillespie, and others had no interest in him. Later Powell returned the favor by persuading the popular trumpeter and Ellington alumnus, Cootie Williams, to record '"Round Midnight." Monk had written the song at 19, yet Williams demanded equal credit as a composer before recording it, a not unusual condition in those days.
Despite his reticence to talk about personal matters—or, often, to talk at all—Monk allowed some bitterness to seep through in a 1960 interview with Jazz magazine. "Bud Powell? I'm the only one he really digs," he stated. "I brought Bud Powell around when he first started. That's never been in print. Doesn't worry me; truth got to come out some time .... Oscar Peterson never gives me any credit. ... George Shearing copies so much jive from me. He names everybody but who he really digs. I don't care who I mention, 'cause I don't envy anybody. …All you read today is how Miles followed Diz, Parker, Fats Navarro around like a puppy—everybody but me. Read everything but the truth. Miles never yet mentioned how much he learned from me . . . Parker, Dizzy, they all came to hear me. Bird never excited me like he did the others. 'Bird is a god,' they said. He wasn't to me! No, and no one else was either!"
"He's a solitary man who, when he looks back, does not see his fellow travelers —who doesn't even know if he has fellow travelers." -André Hodeir, Toward Jazz
As the bop star blazed, Monk's career waned. In 1942, he played for a while with Lucky Millinder's big band, and in '44 he joined Coleman Hawkins, with whom he made his first studio recordings and went on his first extended jazz tour, playing in Chicago and on the West Coast as well as on New York's jazz club boulevard, 52nd Street.
But work began getting scarce. In 1946, he played briefly with Dizzy Gillespie's big band. The following year he made his first recording as leader of a combo, but from then through 1954 his record sessions were sporadic—two for the Blue Note label and five for Prestige. By 1948, he was only doing occasional nights at Birdland, and days were often spent sitting in his room, writing tunes, gazing silently at the television, or staring for long hours at a picture of Billie Holiday taped to his ceiling. Down Beat described him in 1948 as living in obscurity in his West 63rd Street flat: "Ninety percent of his time is spent at a piano—anybody's piano." But not much of that time involved getting paid. Nellie, his wife, helped keep food on the table with outside work during his periods of moody immobility.
Things weren't made any easier when, in 1951, Monk was arrested with Bud Powell on a narcotics possession charge. He spent sixty days in prison, but more crucially, the New York State Liquor Authority rescinded his cabaret card, which in those days all club performers had to have in order to work. When he got out Birdland wouldn't even offer him free admission, much less hire him. For the next several years he survived only with the Baroness de Koenigswarter's help.
Monk's fortunes didn't begin to change until the mid-'50s. In 1954, he accepted an invitation to give a series of concerts in Paris. French journalists were perplexed at his refusal to discuss his music—"Let's not talk about it," he would remonstrate gently, "let's play it"—and reviews were mixed, but it was in Paris that Monk cut his first solo piano album, Pure Monk.
In 1955, he began his association with the Riverside label, catching some by surprise by focusing on other people's music in his first two LPs, Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington and The Unique Thelonious Monk. With the release of Brilliant Corners, a stunning collection featuring Sonny Rollins on tenor sax, in 1956, his albums began to attract more widespread attention.
Meanwhile, the Baroness and Monk's manager, a high-school English teacher named Harry Colomby, got his card restored, and word began spreading that he was back in action. The mystique also grew: Program notes for the Berkshire Music Barn Jazz Concert in 1955 read, "Monk is the Greta Garbo of jazz, and his appearance at any piano is regarded as a major event by serious followers of jazz.''
Monk's television debut, on the CBS Stars Of Jazz show in 1956, was a sign that something big was happening. A number of important jazz players shared the stage with him, but in some ways Monk, though still not widely known to the "unhip" public, was perhaps the hit of the show. During a coffee break between rehearsals, he seated himself at the piano and began improvising. The other performers, including Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and saxophonist Lester Young, gathered around to listen. The scene moved the director to stage Monk's solo number with them assembled once more around the piano, the camera capturing their amazed expressions.
Although his TV appearance went well, it did create one peripheral problem. Three days before the telecast, Monk was scheduled to play at a recording session. He was there for each rehearsal, but when it came time to show at the studio, he was nowhere to be seen. At the last minute, Mal Waldron was brought in as a substitute. It was later learned that Monk had fallen asleep; for days his anxiety over the TV gig had kept him wide awake.
His opening in the summer of 1957 at New York's Five Spot drew full houses, and the grateful management invited him to choose his own piano for the club and to stay as long as he wanted; he stayed for eight months, which was ample time, Leroi Jones noted in Down Beat, for him to leave his mark on the instrument, with "hundreds of scratches, even gashes, on the wood just above the keys where Monk, slashing at the keys, banged the wood with his big ring or tore it with his fingernails."
Fronting a powerful quartet there, with Shadow Wilson on drums, Wilbur Ware on bass, and a young saxophonist named John Coltrane, Monk found himself at the center of a cult. Audiences lined up to see his unpredictable performances, his quirky, quietly ecstatic dances during horn solos, his wanderings through the room. To the musically astute, however, there was much more than that going on, not the least of which being the first signs of genius in Coltrane's work. Coltrane himself laid much of the credit for his growth during this period on Monk, who, among other things, taught him how to blow more than one note at a time.
Recording with Gerry Mulligan, mid-'50s
Monk's luck seemed to take one more turn for the worse in the fall of 1958, with another drug-related arrest. En route with the Baroness and Charlie Rouse from New York to Baltimore for a gig there at the Comedy Club, Monk decided to pull over for a glass of water at a hotel in Delaware. In the hotel, offended in some manner by the manager, he lapsed into a stony silence and began moving slowly back and forth through the lobby. His withering glare and massive presence frightened the manager into calling the police. By the time they arrived, Monk had gone back into the car. They ordered him to leave, but he stared quietly ahead, not moving. Finally, they dragged him out, prying his grip from the steering wheel, pulling him to their van, and beating him on the hands despite the Baroness' pleas. Meanwhile, some marijuana was found in the trunk; the Baroness announced that it was hers. Charges were eventually dropped against her, but Monk was found guilty of disturbing the peace.
This was sufficient for the New York Liquor Authority to again withhold the pianist's cabaret license. Monk's manager, protesting that racism had been involved in the complaint and arrest, demanded a hearing, but when Monk refused to confirm that the hotel manager had called him a nigger, the appeal was denied.
Monk never enjoyed being far from his wife or from New York, so when this new exclusion from the local clubs forced him to go on the road, the pressures were perhaps severe, culminating in a strange episode during a job at Storyville in Boston's Copley Square Hotel in the fall of 1959. Monk showed up late at the hotel, ambling through the lobby and staring at the walls until the unnerved management refused to give him a room. At ten that evening, he seated himself at the Storyville piano, played two songs with his band, then left. At 11 :30 he returned, did the same two songs, then sat motionless for about eight minutes with the band uncomfortably looking on. Sensing that they weren't needed, the group then left the stage, and Monk remained, totally still, for more than twenty more minutes before finally getting up and leaving.
Eventually he was picked up that night at the Boston airport by the state police. He had taken a cab there in hopes of catching a flight back to New York, but finding that the last planes had already departed, he started pacing up and down through the terminal. The police took him to the Grafton State Hospital in Worcester, where he was held under observation for a week. No one knew where he had gone; his wife telephoned the Boston police, not thinking to check the state force as well, and a telegram sent by the hospital to her never arrived. It wasn't until a friend in Boston heard where he was on the local news that Nellie was notified and he was released.
From that point on, when asked about his eccentricities, Monk would answer, "I can't be crazy, because they had me in one of those places and let me go."
After two years, deciding that Monk was no danger to the customers in New York, the Liquor Authority reinstated him once more, and finally he was able to play on his home turf. Most important, Nellie again would go to work with him; on rare occasions when she couldn't, he telephoned her during intermissions. Both of them believed literally that their marriage was made in heaven, or some similar department in the spiritual bureaucracy. They had first seen each other as children on a playground; though six months would pass before they actually met, both sensed a deep connection with that initial contact, and Monk would later surprise her by correctly recalling everything she was wearing that day. When she had to spend some time in a hospital, Monk composed one of his most beautiful tunes, "Crepuscule With Nellie," for her, taking a full month to get exactly the feeling he wanted with it.
Monk felt an obligation to provide for Nellie and their children, so he must have been especially grateful of his increasing good fortune in the early '60s. As late as 1958 he was charging $800 for his band; by 1960 his prices had risen to as high as $2,000 for week-long jobs, or $1,000 for one-nighters, and in '64 his earnings climbed to $50,000.
And better gigs were coming in. On a European tour in the early '60s, he sold out the historic Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and his concert in Sweden was nationally televised live. He delighted in bringing back souvenirs from these tours, including new additions to his ever-growing collection of hats and a beautiful opal ring purchased in Hong Kong. Monk always wore this ring along with one he had designed himself in New York during the '50s—a black onyx with the letters M-O, two large diamonds, and then the letters N-K.
But of all his concerts, the one staged in December '63 at New York's Philharmonic Hall may have been the most personally satisfying. Monk and his quartet—drummer Frankie Dunlop, bassist Butch Warren, and saxophonist Charlie Rouse—shared the stage with trumpeters Thad Jones and Nick Travis, saxophonists Steve Lacy, Phil Woods, and Gene Allen, and trombonist Eddie Bert in a special big-band presentation of Monk material. This was not an entirely new setting for Monk—he had fronted a ten-piece band doing Hall Overton's arrangements of his tunes at Town Hall and the Randall's Island Jazz Festival in 1959, winning enthusiastic reviews in the New York Times—but the Philharmonic Hall was special; it was within walking distance of his apartment, a part of the neighborhood he had criss-crossed on his long meditative strolls. After years of hassles with local clubs and unsympathetic critics, Monk had finally made it close to home.
"Thelonious is a very strange person." - Milt Jackson
Through feast and famine, one thing never changed—Monk himself. To the end, he stuck to the technique he had begun exploring when Mary Lou Williams first heard him. Holding his fingers almost totally flat, he sacrificed accuracy in arpeggios and runs in order to get the sound he wanted, even playing with his elbows if necessary. His mood dictated his performances. After a hair-raising airplane ride to Detroit, he spent most of his concert that night jabbing the keys with his elbows for quick harsh clusters.
This elbow maneuver baffled and alienated a lot of critics and musicians, but typically their reaction made little impact on Monk. After all, he wasn't doing it to attract attention; Monk knew he was doing it for a musical purpose. As he told Valerie Wilmer, "I hit the piano with my elbow sometimes because of a certain sound I want to hear, certain chords. You can't hit that many notes with your hands. Sometimes people laugh when I'm doing that. Yeah, let 'em laugh! They need something to laugh at."
In rehearsals, he could be exacting, leading his band over a one-minute segment of his music for two hours without telling them that they were practicing at a slow tempo. Since the band hadn't suffered any apprehensions about matching heavy technical demands with quick tempos, they could follow Monk's guidance up to full speed with almost no trouble once they had mastered their parts. At one rehearsal, when alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce protested that his part was impossible to play, Monk cooly replied, "You have an instrument, don't you? Either play it or throw it away," then walked off. Eventually Gryce played it.
The feeling of a piece, and its overall contours, were always more important to Monk than getting all the notes right. When saxophonist Sahib Shihab proudly announced that he would be attending classes at Juilliard, Monk responded, "Well, I hope you don't come out any worse than you sound now." Not a strong sight-reader, he rarely read scores in rehearsal, explaining, "That way, nothing distracts." He habitually gathered up the band's charts immediately after concerts and took them home, sometimes misplacing them there.
Needless to say, Monk remained personally, as well as musically, true to himself. He never moved from his apartment, a flat in the rear of an old tenement building near warehouses and public housing developments, with a tan baby grand nearly filling the main room; the keyboard almost reached the kitchen sink. His idiosyncrasies remained; they were neither encouraged nor suppressed by events in the outside world. He still went on long drives in his '56 Buick or traipsed the local streets lost in music, still broke into street corner shuffles like a tranced-out jazz dervish. His brother recalls Thelonious whisking into his apartment one day with a collard leaf pinned to his lapel, dancing blissfully before a mirror for a few moments, then leaving without a word.
Neither did he escape his brooding quiet spells. Often, he would keep his silence for days on end; strangers and loved ones alike could only watch from a distance and wait for the clouds to pass. Nat Hentoff described one club date where a waitress was sent to locate Monk, who was late for his entrance. She found him, standing absolutely still in a back room, smoking in the darkness. Few people could break through to him. Even Nellie, asking if he was worried, would sometimes only be able to get him to say, "No." It seems likely that music, that angel spirit that beat time for his joyful tap steps, might sometimes have doubled as demon.
Monk's disinterest in talking about his art may have stemmed from the presumptions of his fans nearly as much as from their earlier indifference. Imagine the scene when, at a Columbia University seminar on his music, the professor asked Monk, "Would you play some of your weird chords for the class? “The pianist bristled: "What do you mean weird? They're perfectly logical chords!” Then there was his record company's request for him to pose for one album cover dressed as a monk in a pulpit. He refused, but he did consent to be photographed while sitting in a little red wagon in front of his house.
There's an important point here. What may seem to the public and to exploitative industry executives as another marketable Monk eccentricity, in fact stemmed from the man's consistent view of integrity and logic. He objected to wearing a cassock because monks did not sermonize from behind church podiums, but he saw no problem with the latter shot because in reality he had composed while seated in the front yard in his son's toy wagon. Truth, in representation as well as music, was the light in Monk's life. For a man who only knew how to be true to his muse, who had never learned to compromise his art, misplaced enthusiasm may have been harder to take than the anonymity of his early career.
Monk's last years were spent at the home of the Baroness de Koenigswarter. As Orrin Keepnews and Max Roach note elsewhere in Keyboard, he isolated himself from people who had at one time been his closest friends and colleagues. As at every other stage of his remarkable life, we as outsiders can only speculate on what led to his withdrawal. More than most people in music, Monk must remain a mystery to us, but in his work, both as a composer and as a pianist, he has left us echoes of that hidden world inside his mind, that endless sidewalk dance, midnight dream, love, and loneliness.
"All ways know, always night, all ways know—and dig the way I say 'all ways."' —Thelonious Monk