Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Swing and Swing Some More: Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Sphere Monk

I just finished reading a biography of Thelonious Monk by Robin D.G. Kelly and cried on the last page. It’s a story full of pathos of how a young boy with a fabulous name (Thelonious Sphere Monk) was born with an intention to play the piano. And play it only his way. And how that young man who insisted on playing music that no one else heard and most everyone else laughed at or scoffed at opened a whole new window on jazz which others turned around and called be bop.

Ignored constantly but always robbed of his ideas and tunes and ideas by others he laboured away playing in tiny clubs in Harlem. Those who in time would become giants and legends and icons sat by his piano and listened to what this cat with the funny hats and natty suits was trying to figure out. Monk in those days was like a sculptor desperately chipping away the extraneous and the heavy in search of the essential and the perfectly balanced.

Yet he never made it. Miles, Dizzy, Charlie, Art, Charles. They all made it and they all paid homage to Monk who continued to literally scrape out a living supporting a wife and two kids.

Critics hated him. But he always had an audience. But promoters didn’t trust him to show up on time so they avoided him. He nearly starved.

Then suddenly after composing a whole slew of masterpieces (‘Round Midnight, Straight No Chaser, Epistrophy to name just three) the critics finally got it. And the record companies began chasing him. For 10 years he was the toast of the jazz world.

But it was soon over. Again he was dropped by companies and promoters. The giants of jazz still worshipped his music and marvelled at his compositions. Sidemen said they learned more working with Monk then in all their other gigs put together.

He was a family man who through thick and thin loved his wife and kids like nothing else. He struggled with depression and poverty and rumours and misinformation about himself. But he just kept looking for that piano to play. When someone said he was great “even though he plays a lot of wrong notes,” Monk retorted, “There ain’t no wrong notes on a piano.”

By the time he died he had created a new genre of jazz, had been hailed as one of America’s greatest composers, influenced countless of superstars and unknown jazz musicians, was called the High Priest by adoring fans around the world. But he died lying fully dressed on a bed of a friend in New Jersey, having not played publicly for 6 years. His wife from whom he’d separated by never stopped loving, held him in her arms as he passed away.

My first introduction to jazz was Underground Monk’s album with the wild cover. The cover won a Grammy award and spun all sorts of stories that he had been a fighter with the French underground in WWII. That’s what my brother told me when he showed me the record in 1969 as a symbol of ‘ultimate cool’.

For years it was the only jazz record I knew about. And the songs on the record are indeed old friends. But now after reading about this amazing man’s sad, funny, full and creative life these songs seem to have cracked out of the earth fresh.  I can’t stop listening.

Monk used to tell his sidemen who complained they didn’t know how to play his music. “Just swing and swing some more.” Every song here, even the slow (Monk’s favourite tempo) Ugly Beauty, oscillates like nobody’s business.

            Track Listing:
            01 Thelonious (Take 1)
02 Ugly Beauty (Take 5)
03 Raise Four
04 Boo Boo's Birthday (Take 11)
05 Easy Street
06 Green Chimneys
07 In Walked Bud
08 Ugly Beauty (Take 4)
09 Boo Boo's Birthday (Take 2)
10 Thelonious (Take 3)
Listen here.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

Can't count how many I've listened to this album. I think it's in my blood now.