In the Rainbow Grill in New York one evening in 1971, according to Robin D. G. Kelley, Professor of History and American Studies at the University of Southern California, Duke Ellington halted his band in mid-flow and announced: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the baddest left hand in the history of jazz just walked into the room, Mr Thelonious Monk.’
In the Rainbow Grill in New York one evening in 1971, according to Robin D. G. Kelley, Professor of History and American Studies at the University of Southern California, Duke Ellington halted his band in mid-flow and announced: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the baddest left hand in the history of jazz just walked into the room, Mr Thelonious Monk.’ In the code of jive talk, ‘baddest’ meant the best. Ellington was paying tribute to the strength that Monk had inherited from James P. Johnson, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and Fats Waller, the most renowned stride pianists in Harlem. Now, after 14 years’ research, Kelley has published probably the most thorough jazz biography of all time, perhaps the baddest. Even after a sympathetic editor helped him to cut 70,000 words from the manuscript, this is a long book, richly informative and entertaining.
Kelley has written previously on the cultural and political aspirations of the American black working class and plays the piano himself. From his own Afro-American point of view, he writes with empathetic understanding of the handicap of Monk’s heritage as a descendant of plantation slaves and his contribution to jazz’s part in the desegregation of American society. Monk was a pianist and composer who has been called a genius, and the praise seems gradually to have overcome the dissent. Here is a biography in 3-D, the story of his career in expertly analysed comprehensive detail and the story of his difficult but warm family life from Georgia to Manhattan.
Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917-1982) in his sixth year was taken north from the racially oppressive Land of Cotton to relative freedom within the urban racism of the Big Apple. His first home there was a small apartment on West Sixty-Third Street, near the Hudson River, in a proletarian neighbourhood he lived in until almost the end of his life.
As a boy he was given piano lessons until his tutor, a classicist, admitted there was no more he could teach him. Monk was already devoted to jazz by the age of 16, when he dropped out of school to accompany a Pentecostal evangelist as her pianist on a missionary tour of the United States. It lasted two years. By the end, he later recalled, he was ‘going stir-crazy in the House of the Lord’. He used to relieve the monotonous discipline by sneaking out at night wherever possible to listen to live jazz and sometimes to sit in. He found that ‘Kansas City taught everyone the three principles of jazz: swing, swing, swing.’ Always afterwards he believed in rhythm and melody as the necessary foundations for everything he played, no matter how otherwise experimentally far out. Because his baptismal name really was Sphere, he said, nobody could accuse him of being a square.
In the late 1950s, during his longest continuous engagement, at the Five Spot Café, a scruffy bar in the East Village, later a pizza parlour, I went several times to hear Monk with a tenor sax, bass and drums. A record company, Blue Note, had presented him as ‘The High Priest of Bebop’ and other publicity had described his alleged clownish eccentricity. It is true that he himself had claimed to have been the first to wear a beret, goatee and heavy sunglasses at Minton’s Playhouse, in Harlem, where he sometimes accompanied Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. However, the nights I witnessed Monk, though he wore a hat a couple of sizes too small and sunglasses with bamboo frames, he sombrely concentrated on the piano and spoke to nobody, not even his fellow musicians. He stood up now and then and shuffled around in small circles, dancing like a reluctant old circus bear, and remained uncommunicative. At other times, quite often, he would go and drink alone at the bar, leaving the rest of the quartet to carry on without him.
At first, his piano style and compositions were puzzling. There were vehement percussive attacks on the keys, some Art Tatumesque arpeggios, thoughtful hesitations and angular dissonances, as though in one’s expectancy of cream there were sudden tastes of yogurt. When someone once rashly complained that Monk had hit a wrong note, he replied: ‘The piano ain’t got no wrong notes.’ Miles Davis said: ‘Monk’s the one who really showed me everything.’ Whitney Balliett, the New Yorker’s poetic jazz critic and, incidentally, a formidable drummer, said that Monk’s work ‘represents possibly the most intense and single-minded exploration of the possibilities of jazz yet made by one man’. Leonard Bernstein called Monk ‘the most original and creative pianist in the world of jazz today’. Once I learned to listen properly, I was fascinated, and felt that I had achieved high intellectual status. Monk’s own favourites of his 70 or so compositions are ‘Round Midnight’ and ‘Blue Monk,’ which I continue to think are beautiful.
Throughout his career, Monk was always prone to the mood swings of bipolar disorder and biochemical imbalance. I saw him only when he appeared to be depressed, his more usual state; but during manic episodes he was said to go without sleep for days in a creative frenzy, and was known to throw furniture through plate glass. In those awkward times when the police withdrew his cabaret card, a credential now defunct, that permitted him to perform in New York establishments that served liquor, he was often on the road for one-night stands and on hit-and-run tours abroad, an extremely arduous way of life. Although he eventually gained critical success, entrepreneurs and record companies still exploited him.
Jazz musicians have always been vulnerable, depending, as so many of them do, on drink and drugs to make their ordeals temporarily bearable. Monk was no exception. Fortunately, he was saved again and again by his devoted wife, the inspiration of ‘Crepuscule with Nellie,’ and a providential but dangerous angel, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a black ewe of the Rothschilds. Her father, Nathaniel Rothschild, a lepidopterist of Nabokovian ardour, had named her Pannonica after a moth he caught in 1913, the year she was born. She was obsessed by jazz. Monk was introduced to her in Paris, when he was performing there, and allowed to call her Nica. In America, she became a close friend of his and his family’s, drove him around in her Rolls from gig to gig, and paid for his expensive stays in psychiatric hospitals. Charlie Parker died, platonically, in her New York hotel suite, and she didn’t really help Monk when she took him to her doctor for ‘vitamin shots’ containing amphetamines. He was known as ‘Dr Feelgood’, with an elite clientele, until he lost his license for supplying narcotics to known addicts. Monk suffered his final illness in the company of 60 feral cats in Nica’s house on the New Jersey shore of the Hudson, but died in the loyal arms of Nellie.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 26, 2010Tags: America, Biography, Civil Rights, Jazz, Non-fiction