The High Priest of Jazz


This article originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author. Hear Lewis Lapham discuss this article and more on the Longform Podcast.

At the end of the hall on the ground floor of a tenement on New York’s West 63rd Street, behind a rickety door, in three small rooms littered with cardboard cartons, catsup bottles, half-empty suitcases, Japanese dolls in glass boxes, soup dishes stacked on a piano, team irons, clothes hanging from nails in the fiberboard walls, shopping bags and children’s toys, lives Thelonious Sphere Monk.

There he has lived all but seven of the 43 years of his life, first with his mother, his brother and his sister, and then with his wife and two children, entangled in a domestic clutter wholly inappropriate to his reputation as the weird and enigmatic genius of modern jazz.

Among all the jazz musicians of his generation, none was reported “further out” than Monk. Tales of his strangeness drifted through the stale and noisy air of every jazz joint. The hipsters, taking his name for an obscure joke, called him “The Mad Monk” or “The High Priest of Bop.” They made much of his clumsy dances, his fondness for silly hats, hit gift for cryptic and whimsical statement. (In response to the question “Why do you play such strange chords, Mr. Monk?” he once told a disc jockey, “Those easy chords are hard to find nowadays.”) It was always assumed that he could be found in some dark back room, a remote, if not imaginary, figure, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

But all the while, oblivious to the smell of boiling cabbage in the corridor, he has remained on West 63rd Street, a sentimental man with kind eyes and a full beard, playing his blunt and angular jazz on the grand piano in his kitchen.

Now suddenly, after 20 years of neglect, the critics are beginning to suspect that Monk may be the dominant jazz musician of his time. His conception of rhythm and harmony has influenced the playing of such dissimilar musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Several of his tunes, among them Around About Midnight, Off Minor, and Epistrophy, have become jazz standards. His use of dissonance is analyzed in composition courses at the Julliard School of Music. Recently published articles assign him a niche in the development of jazz comparable to those of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington.

And yet, notwithstanding his new fame, the old rumors persist. Ask anybody who does not know him well, and he will say, “Yeah, man, that Monk, he’s a funny cat, man, he’s something else.”

Contrary to the prevalent gossip, Monk is neither crazy nor putting on an act. The story of his life is the story of an honest man in a not-so-honest world. In many ways naïve, believing—as he once told a trumpet player, “the truth is not supposed to hurt you”—Monk never learned to tell the convenient lies or make the customary compromises. That he should have been proclaimed the complete and perfect hipster is an absurd irony.

An emotional and intuitive man, possessing a child’s vision of the world, Monk talks, sleeps, eats, laughs, walks or dances as the spirit moves him. Sometimes he neglects to go to bed for three days; at other times he will speak to no one, not even to his wife, Nellie. Harry Colomby, a New York high-school teacher who has managed Monk for 10 years, still finds it difficult to approach his only client. “I feel like I’m breaking in on his private world,” Colomby said, “like I’m somewhere I don’t belong.”

The center of Monk’s world is his junkyard apartment. Fires apparently caused by faulty wiring have gutted it twice, but Monk has refurnished it rather than move away. He knows the neighborhood and the people who live there. Distant places on the other side of Central Park or across the Hudson River seem to him foreign and uncertain, inhabited by unreliable people who, for no apparent reason, one day ask for your autograph and the next day want to put you in jail.

A few weeks ago, safe inside his apartment, it occurred to Monk to talk. It was shortly before midnight, and he had just returned from a recording session. He wore an elegantly cut sharkskin suit, a purple shirt made of Japanese silk, a dockworker’s cap and a diamond ring on the little finger of his right hand. He had brought his music home in a torn manila envelope bearing the imprint of a secondhand furniture store in Brooklyn. To calm himself, he first took a can of grape soda from the icebox and then sat down at the piano.

While he played Lulu’s Back in Town, Nellie rummaged through the bedroom in search of his slippers. Married to Monk for 17 years, Nellie watches over him as if he were one of the children, even picking out his clothes in the morning. “We don’t talk much,” she said, “but I just like being with him.”

After about 20 minutes Monk stood up and started pacing between the icebox and the kitchen sink. He edged around chairs, ironing boards, and a typewriter balanced on a stack of old telephone books, steadily smoking cigarettes and producing at least three gold lighters from his various pockets. As he passed the piano on his tours of the room, he would occasionally reach down and play a progression of major or minor chords, depending on his mood.

Monk stands steadfastly erect, carrying himself with a dignity that marks him as a man of serious purpose. He speaks in a soft drawl, slurring his words and ending his sentences with the question. “You dig, man, you dig?” He talks the same way he plays a tune, fixing upon one theme and running it through numerous variations, worrying it and taking it apart until he gets it right. He began with the subject of his reputation. “That’s a drag picture they’re paintin’ of me, man,” he said. “A lot of people still think I’m nuts or somethin’ ... but I dig it, man; I can feel the draft.”

Rumors of Monk’s eccentricity have followed him all his life. Named after his father, he was born October 10, 1920, in Rocky Mount, N.C. His mother, a civil-service worker and a Jehovah’s Witness, brought him to New York when he was four. His father, who was ill, preferred to live in the South. Except for one summer as the mascot of the fire department in Batavia, N.Y., he grew up in the West 60’s, a Negro ghetto known as San Juan Hill.

Nellie, who first saw him on a neighborhood playground when she was 12, remembers him as a polite but determined little boy who went his own way. “Even when Thelonious was a kid,” she said, “he knew exactly who he was.”

He took his first piano lessons when he was eight; at the age of 15 he was playing jobs in local dance halls and cafés, insisting on his already unorthodox harmonies. At high school he excelled at mathematics and basketball and ignored the bitter arguments about racial prejudice. “When I was a kid,” he once remarked to his white manager, Colomby, “some of the guys tried to get me to hate white people and for a while I tried real hard. But every time I got to hating them some white guy would come along and mess the whole thing up.”

Before he was 17 Monk quit school and joined a troupe of wandering evangelists. The troupe disbanded in Kansas City. Monk found work playing in the local dives, where pianist Mary Lou Williams, who later became a prominent exponent of the modern style, first heard him. “He was playing the same chords then as now,” she said, “only then most people called it ‘zombie music.’”

Back home in New york in 1939, Monk, bypassed by the war, began to explore the possibilities of the new sound with a number of other musicians, most notably Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Gradually, over a period of six or seven years, during innumerable jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem and Kelly’s Stable on 52nd Street, there evolved the jazz known as “bop.”

Bop at first seemed a form of exaggerated and satirical protest against the predictable regularities of dixieland and swing. The music emphasized harmonies previously judged dissonant. The rhythms became more complex; sudden gaps appeared in the melodic line. Remembering the early days of the new jazz, Monk said, “We had to compose a lot of music to bring out certain harmonies. I mean, man, the music wasn’t on the scene.”

A few musicians managed to use the new style to their commercial advantage, but Monk failed to do so. Part of his failure to be taken seriously resulted from his antics on the bandstand. His taste in hats, for example, runs to berets, fezzes, Chinese-coolie hats, baseball caps and a miscellaneous assortment of fedoras, derbies and skullcaps. Once seated at the piano, he becomes transfixed by the music, an expression of open mouthed surprise on his broad face, like that of a child watching a magician change oranges into rabbits. He stomps both feet on the floor, and his whole body follows the rises and falls of the melodic line. In the early 1940’s the hipsters, anxious to appear cool in all things, interpreted this enthusiasm as an affectation. They likewise dismissed his dancing as a sideshow.

If he is not playing himself, Monk stands up to conduct his band, shambling around the state in an awkward approximation of the buck-and-wing, grunting, snapping his fingers, suddenly thrusting his open palm at the drummer or the tenor to indicate a solo. At such moments he resembles a meandering, but musical, duck. “When he dances,” said one musician, “that means he’s satisfied with what he hears . . . he used to say to me ‘if the groove is really driving, then feet will move.’”

Despite his recent recognition, some nightclub owners and critics still complain of Monk’s bizarre mannerisms. The complaints bewilder him. “I don’t imitate anybody,” he said. “I have my own way of walking and talking. They want me to smile at the audience or play every forty minutes, like a train schedule or something, but I can’t be grinning at somebody’s face for nothing, man. I’m thinking how to play, and I ain’t got time for that fancy stuff.”

The fierce intransigence of his convictions also hurt him commercially and often frightened people. In a milieu where departures from conventional morality are considered proper if not obligatory, Monk remained embarrassingly square. After quitting work at four a.m., he would go dutifully home to Nellie. “He’s so straight, it makes you nervous,” Colomby said. “A man’s not supposed to be that way in this business.” Charlie Rouse, the tenor saxophonist in Monk’s band for the last five years, made the same point, offering an example of what he called “Monk’s unbending guts.” He and Monk once were driving to Baltimore to play a week’s engagement at a club. Monk stopped at a motel in Newcastle, Del., in hopes of using the men’s room. He did not know that the motel discouraged Negroes.

“I was asleep in the back of the car,” Rouse said, “or I could have told him not to do that. … He just doesn’t think about those segregation things.” The manager of the motel asked Monk to leave, but, because Monk seemed slow about going, the manager summoned the police. By the time the first cop arrived, Monk had returned to his car. The cop tried to pull him out of it. Puzzled and offended, Monk shook the cop off.

“After that, man,” Rouse said, “it was awful. Cops jumping out of squad cars all over the place and beating up on Monk. They handcuffed him and took us to jail. But Monk didn’t back down. If he thinks he’s right, he sticks by what he thinks. He stood there and defied the judge. If they told him to say something, he said nothing. Finally they let us go, and I said, ‘Monk, you’re sure some stubborn black man.’”

Although the incident occurred as late as 1958, it indicated Monk’s stubborn defense of his own point of view, an attribute that made it difficult for him to find work in the 1940’s. The established booking agencies refused to deal with him. A club owner in Detroit, terrified by Monk’s glowering intensity, asked the police to throw him out of a club in which he had been engaged for a week. Other owners refused to serve Monk liquor or told him that their three-year-old sons could play better piano.

Monk endured the abuse without losing his humor. Once he was hired with tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins for a one-night stand at a club in New York, but Rollins never arrived. When Monk tried to collect Rollins’s pay as well as his own, the owner refused. “Man, you’re twelve drags,” Monk said. “Ain’t you got no ears? I was playing twice as fast.”

Monk’s fortunes fell to their lowest ebb in 1951 when he was arrested for possession of narcotics. Detectives found a package of drugs within a few feet of a car occupied by Monk and some friends. Although known to be “clean,” Monk refused to implicate anyone else. Nellie implored Monk to exonerate himself, but he hated the idea of being thought “a drag.” He silently served 60 days in jail. After his release, the police took away his cabaret card, which prevented him from working in New York nightclubs.

The next six years seemed interminable. Unfounded rumors had it that Monk was in jail or locked up in an asylum. The disc jockeys seldom played his music. Nellie worked as a seamstress.

Occasionally Monk found a job out of town, but mostly he remained on 63rd Street, playing the piano in the kitchen and cooking for his children. His son, Thelonious Sphere Monk Jr., was born in 1950; his daughter, Barbara, in 1954. Monk dressed as carefully as his circumstances allowed and could be counted upon for a small sum of money if an unemployed musician showed up in need of a loan. “I didn’t get raggedy,” he said. “They thought I’d become a bum, but I fooled ‘em. I stayed on the scene.”

His music sustained him. During those bleak years of worry and debt he composed more than 50 tunes now becoming familiar to an increasingly appreciative audience. Unlikely many of his contemporaries, Monk resisted the clichés that soon developed in the new style. His own compositions combine the driving force of traditional jazz with the oblique ironies of modern jazz. Monk’s percussive melodies, sometimes witty, sometimes sad, move in wide leaps—characteristically in intervals of a seventh, a ninth, or a flatted fifth— across intricate, insistent rhythms. His sense of formal development gives his music a buoyant solidity that distinguishes it from the work of any other jazz musician. Charlie Rouse, seeking to describe Monk’s sound, called it “hard but soulful.”

Monk composes slowly, only as the mood comes upon him. His intense concentration permits him to write music in a room loud with the noise of a radio, or even sitting in his son’s red wagon on the sidewalk. Sometimes, as with Crepuscule for Nellie, a ballad for his wife, he will think about a tune for three months before he puts it on paper.

Lately Monk has taken to composing music in the house of the Baroness Panonica de Koenigswarter, the sister of the third Baron Rothschild. A friend and protectress of New York jazz musicians, the baroness lives in Weehawken, N.J., surrounded by 40 Siamese cats. Pannonica, a tune that Monk wrote for her in the late 1950’s, later became the theme for the soundtrack of the French film Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Always seeking perfection, Monk demands the same from his sidemen. At the first of several recording sessions before he went to Europe this spring, he painstakingly wrote down the harmonic progressions of a tune called Shuffle Boil for Butch Warren, his bassist. After the quartet had recorded 13 versions of the tune, Warren complained about the complexity of his rhythms. “I’m trying, Thelonious,” Warren said, “but I can’t seem to get it right.”

“I don’t believe in the word ‘try,’” Monk said. “I believe in the word ‘do.’”

To a saxophonist who once advanced a similar complaint, Monk said, “You have an instrument, don’t you? Either play it or throw it away.”

In the spring of 1957, Monk regained his cabaret card and moved in the Five Spot Café on the Lower East Side. Without any but the most perfunctory publicity, the crowds soon came. “Every place I work,” Monk said, “they try to keep it a secret, but I always did have people standing around watching me. I made it on my own, without the help of no agents.”

The following year the Down Beat critics poll elected Monk the best jazz pianist. Subsequent reappraisals by the critics invariably mentioned the “long-lost” or the “forgotten” Monk, and then discussed the “urgent beauty” of his compositions. In 1963 Columbia records signed Monk to a five-year contract and began advertising him with adjectives usually reserved for popular singers.

Monk’s talents have won him global acceptance, but he still feels easiest in New York. Asked, “What is jazz?” he once answered, “New York, man. You can feel it. It’s around in the air.”

The first time he played a concert in Switzerland, he was asked how he liked the lakes. He said he preferred the lake in Central Park, a chauvinistic answer, characteristic of him. He believes his 1954 Buick is the best car in the word, that he is married to the best wife, lives on the best block in the best town and, despite his various troubles with established authority, is a citizen of the best country. A critic soliciting musical opinion once asked him to name his favorite vocal group. Monk nominated Fred Waring, on the ground that he “is the only guy that sings the Star-Spangled Banner right.”

Monk has accepted his success without surprise, but he remains slightly suspicious of the attendant publicity. “I was playing the same stuff twenty years ago, man,” he says, and nobody was painting any portraits.”

He nevertheless enjoys his new affluence. He likes traveling first class on airplanes and usually carries a bill of large denomination, either $100 or $1,000, on the theory that “you never know when you’re gonna run into a bargain.”

But if he indulges himself with the toys of wealth, the same belief in himself that sustained him during the lean years now enables him to avoid the equally destructive temptations of commercial success. Whereas many successful musicians subside into a repetitious formula, Monk continues to experiment.

Standing in the shambles of his apartment, his children off at New England boarding schools and his wife asking him whether he wanted to take his green suede shoes to Stockholm, Monk gazed at the ceiling and said, “The only cats worth anything are the cats who take chances. Sometimes I play things I never heard myself.”

Whereupon, it being three a.m. on a cold night, Monk decided to walk around the corner for a quart of strawberry ice cream. He asked Nellie if she thought he should change his shirt. She said it would not be necessary, but she wanted to know how long he would be out. Monk promised to return in less than half an hour. He got all the way to the front door before he realized he had forgotten his boots. With the apologetic smile of an absentminded but obedient husband, he went meekly back to fetch them.

Outside in the street, walking in the shadows of the warehouses on 11th Avenue, the lights of the Jersey piers glowing cold and far-off across the Hudson River, Monk listened to the wind rattling empty tin cans in a vacant lot. He looked at the sky and said:

“You know what’s the loudest noise in the world, man? The loudest noise in the world is silence.”

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