8 November 2010 **** Front Page

The real Thelonious Monk

By Tapani Lausti  

Robin D.G. Kelley, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. JR Books 2010 .

There are many myths about the great American jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. Supposedly he had a very limited technique as a piano player. Supposedly he did not know anything about classical music. Supposedly he was a child-like character who wasn't interested in the wider world.

Tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin once challenged Monk's claim that he could play like Art Tatum who was famous for his amazing technique. Monk said: "Well, check this out." Griffin tells the rest of the story: "He made a Tatumesque run on the piano and my eyeballs and my ears almost fell off my head. He said: 'But I don't need that.' So he played what he had to play, that's all it is. He didn't need to be making flourishes and doing pianistic aerobics. He just played what he wanted to play and he did it perfectly." (p. 71)

As to his supposed ignorance of classical music, he could burst into a Chopin piano composition with faster than normal speed. Monk loved Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and Bach and like many other contemporary jazz musicians, got interested in Stravinsky.

All his life Monk had to live with a cartoon type of idea of what he was all about. Sometimes he deliberately played the role once he realized that it was a way to gain popularity and raise people's curiousity.

Reading Robin Kelley's biography one gets a strong feeling that the author of this biography has managed to bring the real Monk to life. Indeed, Monk was open to the world outside music and liked to discuss contemporary issues.

Kelley also deals expertly with Monk's musical development and ideas without confusing a non-musician reader. Early in his career Monk had to suffer from negative criticism by many noted jazz writers, Leonard Feather among them. However, Monk always believed that listeners would come around and learn to appreciate his music. And so they did.

By the end of the fifties, the New York jazz club Five Spot had to turn away customers. Kelley writes: "To many of the young patrons who lined up outside the Five Spot six nights a week, Monk was indeed the 'Seer'. When Monk was on the stand, the club was holy ground." (p. 249)

In 1975, when Monk already was suffering from health problems and financial worries, the highly esteemed jazz scholar Martin Williams declared that Monk was "the greatest living jazz composer. And that means, from my own point of view, that he is one of the great American composers of whatever category." (p. 442)

His popularity and fame did not provide Monk with financial security. Even when he was tired or ill, he was forced to accept strings of gigs, often with tiring geographic distances, whilst he really should have been allowed to spend more time composing. American society has not appreciated its jazz greats in any sufficient measure. Also racism has followed this truly American art form. Many jazz musicians were better appreciated in Europe and Japan.

Monk's legacy lives on through his compositions which are still very popular among today's jazz musicians. British pianist Jonathan Gee has led a project called The Monk Liberation Front. Its aim has been to perform Monk's music "both in the manner he intended and in innovative, contemporary ways, and by commissioning bold new work infused with Monk's ambitious spirit."

Tony Kofi, with Jonathan Gee, bassist Ben Hazleton and drummer Winston Clifford, published a CD in 2004 of Monk's tunes, All Is Know. The late Swedish pianist Esbjörn Svensson published a CD in 1996 called Esbjörn Svensson Trio Plays Monk (it was extremely popular in Sweden). The tunes on these two discs provide a good selection of Monk's compositions and include: "Boo Boo's Birthday", "Ugly Beauty", "Trinkle Tinkle", "Ruby My Dear", "Brilliant Corners", "Comin' On The Hudson", "We See", "Crepuscule With Nellie", "Teo", "Misterioso", "Gallop's Gallop", "Light Blue", "Think Of One", "Monk's Mood", "I Mean You", "Criss-Cross", "'Round Midnight", "Bemsha Swing", "Rhythm-A-Ning", "In Walked Bud", "Little Rootie Tootie", "Eronel" and "Evidence". I would add at least two: "Well You Needn't" and "Straight No Chaser". The first Monk tune I ever heard was "Blue Monk".


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