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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Monk - music and inimitable minimalism

Probably well behind everybody else, I’ve been reading the Thelonious Monk Biography by Robin Kelley And in what amounts to a private Monk festival, I’ve also been listening to the Complete Riverside Monk box set which I picked up in Paris recently.

I’ve been listening to Monk’s music for over thirty years now – I remember my father bringing home a double LP Riverside compilation when I was about 13 or so (pictured above – liner notes by Hall Overton!), and being really struck by the unique sound world of this music, which was unlike anything I’d heard in even my father’s extensive collection of jazz records. I didn’t understand it, but then again, not being a musician until I bought my first instrument at 18, I didn’t really understand anything............

Fast-forward several years and I not only played a lot of Monk’s music in various bands (as any jazz musician does in the course of playing this music), I also put together two different trios – one saxophone, one piano – devoted solely to his music, and also wrote the arrangements for a quartet tour where the entire repertoire was Monk’s. So his music has been part of my musical and everyday life for the majority of my time on the planet.

So, given all that, it’s taken me a while to get to Kelley’s book – I think I tried to order it when it came out first but it hadn’t been printed on this side of the water and then it became one of those ‘to do’ things. But it was worth the wait – I’m not finished it yet (as I write this), and I’ll be sad when I am, because it’s been a great read. As has been remarked previously by others, the amount of research Kelley did was phenomenal – the guy seems to have found out what Monk was doing on a week by week basis for about thirty years! And he not only undertakes amazing research, he also casts some light on on Monk’s (in)famous ‘eccentricity’, by showing that Monk was clearly bipolar and far from his eccentricity being something amusing, his condition caused tremendous difficulties both for him and for his family. The fact that his illness went undiagnosed for so long was caused both by a less developed understanding of the condition in those days, and the fact that the mental state of a black man was a very low priority for 1950s and 60s America.

The person that emerges in this book is a very admirable man – a genuine family man, generous to his friends and with his time to other musicians if they showed a genuine interest in what he was doing. He was also very musically demanding on his sidemen and colleagues, hurt and offended by the lack of recognition he often got, and by the reputation he had for being ‘crazy’. I knew that Monk had a difficult time in his early career, but until I read this book I hadn’t realised just HOW difficult it was. For the first 15 years of his professional life he struggled to get work of almost any kind – his reputation for being ‘weird’ both musically and personally, (not to mention a couple of minor drug busts with the consequent loss of his cabaret card), made it incredibly difficult, for a man with a wife and two young children, to support his family and develop his music.

Despite the appalling general lack of recognition he received around that time, there were several people who really swam against the tide and supported him professionally and who come out with great credit for it – Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff of Blue Note Records, Max and Lorraine Gordon (the latter going as far as carrying boxes of Monk’s records to record stores in an effort to get them to sell them), and George Wein. And his manager Harry Colomby emerges with a lot of credit for the work he put in trying to get work for someone who must have been both difficult to sell, and a very difficult client at times. In fact he was Colomby’s ONLY client for years – Colomby remained a schoolteacher throughout his association with Monk, and his role as a friend, manager, and agent for one of the world’s greatest composers and jazz musicians is a truly extraordinary story in itself.

As is the story of Nellie...... Without her, Monk wouldn’t have had a hope of surviving the early days in the way that he did, or dealing with the pressures associated with his fame from the late-50s onwards. Her devotion to him is both touching and extraordinary, and he was in turn devoted to, and totally dependant on her. Theirs is a unique story in the New York jazz world of that time – a stable relationship that was put under the most incredible pressure by economics and social class. How she managed to support Monk, raise a family, and deal with her own health issues over a fifteen year period, when almost no money was coming into the house almost beggars belief. But she did, and then when Monk received the recognition due to him at last, she metamorphosed into his road manager, talking care of literally everything for him while they we touring and working.

Of course the legendary Nica is heavily featured in the book too. Hers is a unique story – European nobility, wealthy but disowned by her family because of her bohemian ways, takes up with the NY jazz world and becomes an intimate friend and supporter to some of the most important figures in the music at that time, and to Monk in particular. The extraordinarily comfortable relationship there seems to have been between herself, Monk and Nellie is a story in itself. An unorthodox triumvirate that shouldn’t have worked, but did – for years.

While the book went over some ground I already knew from a previous biography of Monk by Leslie Gourse, I really learned a lot from this book about where Monk came from, the society from which he emerged and the whole jazz scene at that time.

I was again struck by just how much playing these guys did! The scene has changed so much and it’s very easy to forget the huge impact on everybody’s playing that must have been made by the sheer number of gigs they played. In a time when a jazz club gig was a minimum of three sets per night, 6 nights per week, and a possible couple of extra matinees thrown in, jazz musicians put in hours on their instruments in a way that’s almost impossible to do these days. Bands could stay together for long periods and develop their music in a way that to today’s jazz musician is really enviable.

And for those of us (which is nearly everyone by now) who only know that period from the recordings, it’s startling to see how much playing guys like Monk did with bands other than the ones we know from the recordings. For example there’s a mention of a gig at Town Hall with a bass and drum team of Scott LaFaro and Elvin Jones! I know I would pay a LOT of money to hear how that sounded – to hear how Elvin and Scotty sounded together, and how they sounded playing Monk’s music. Monk also hired LaFaro and Paul Motian for a week in a club in Boston! The legendary Evans’ bass and drum team, but playing with Monk – wow..... Apparently Monk was very taken with LaFaro and wanted him to join his band, but he’d already committed to Evans. In the book, Motian spoke very highly of the gig with Monk and tells a great anecdote about Monk asking him to sing his ride cymbal beat to him before the first gig and suggesting adjustments to it.

What also becomes clear by virtue of an accumulation of anecdotes, is just how dysfunctional many of the musicians were in the NY bebop jazz scene in the 40s and 50s in particular, but also into the 60s. The book is littered with stories of guys not showing up for gigs, being late, being drunk, being stoned, starting fights (physically sometimes), disappearing without explanation, dying young from diseases that would normally be rare in their age group, being psychotic, getting shot, knifed etc etc. Of course we all know these stories but when you read them in concentrated form like this, one after another, it really brings it home what the scene was like. It was (with some exceptions) a drug ravaged, alcoholic and dysfunctional community – severely discriminated against by society in general and by the organs of the State in particular. The story of Monk’s treatment at the hands of the police in Baltimore for example is both tragic and, even at this distance, enraging. Yet this underclass, operating in these appalling economic and societal conditions, managed to produce some of the greatest musicians and music of the 20th Century. Extraordinary.

A recurring theme in the last third of the book is the lack of new compositions created by Monk after about 1958. It’s interesting that he seemed much more prolific in the years when he was struggling to get gigs or be taken seriously as a player or composer. Once he became famous and began to get the recognition he’d always deserved the compositions dried up and his contract with Columbia seemed to be one long conflict between his contract, which demanded three albums a year, and his inability to come up with the material required. It was clear that the demand for new pieces stressed him considerably during this period, and Kelley puts down his inability to compose to exhaustion brought on by constant performing. But I’m not sure this is a strong enough reason for Monk’s compositional river running dry – when you look at Monk’s schedule, even at the height of his fame, he often had three weeks off here and a month there, and contemporaries like Coltrane for example, who was even busier than Monk, were producing new compositions all the time. It seems to me that Monk’s illness must have had something to do with his latter-day struggle and inability to come up with new material.

He was heavily criticised for playing the same repertoire over and over in the 60s, yet if you look at the videos on Youtube from this period, it’s hard to see why the critics are complaining, since his approach to these particular hoary old chestnuts is so fresh every time. Here was a guy who was really improvising every time he played. He never does any mere running through the changes, he’s always improvising off the melody. He does NOT play the same on Blue Monk as he does on Straight No Chaser – Monk doesn’t have a blues template, he really improvises every time he plays a tune – no matter how many times he’s played it in the past.

Another thing that struck me as I was listening to the Riverside Monk collection was how influential Monk was outside of the more obvious players usually discussed when Monk’s influence is mentioned (Jaki Byard, Andrew Hill, Herbie Nichols, Eric Dolphy etc). Listening to his solo piano recordings in particular, I came to realise that Monk was really the first minimalist in modern jazz. Yes, Basie had that aspect to him too, but it’s different. Basie swings tremendously while just using a few notes, and Monk does that too, but in Monk’s solo piano music there’s a stripped down quality and a deliberation about playing sometimes really tiny amounts of musical information that’s uniquely Monk. A kind of stillness and ability to listen to the sound the music is making rather than just listening to the notes being played. Monk will hang a chord or a cluster and just leave them there for a moment, savouring the effect, in a way that you hear in later music by people like Ran Blake (another Monk disciple) for example. And I can even hear it in the sometimes minimalist approach of Paul Bley, or Bill Frisell, or the pared-down drumming of present-day Paul Motian. In an era when jazz musicians moved towards ever greater levels of floridity and virtuosity, Monk sometimes espoused a Spartan approach to his material in a way that not only had never been done before but pointed to a whole aesthetic philosophy that would be adopted by future generations of players. He seemed to have an ability to listen to sound as an end in itself – a concern with timbre that was years ahead of his time. Only Ellington (a clear influence) can really be compared to Monk in this respect, and even then it was different.

Let’s finish by taking advantage of the still miraculous Youtube to watch Monk in Japan in 1963 playing ‘Ba-Lues-Bolivar-Ba-Lues-Are’. Check out the rhythmic vitality of the comping, and the way he takes the last phrase of the melody and uses it to comp for the first two choruses of the tenor solo. And also listen to the way he solos thematically all the time... And when you watch him play, you can see the great truth in what Kenny Werner wrote in Effortless Mastery where he said something like, “I don’t want to play like Monk, I want to feel like Monk felt when he played!’

Then there’s Rouse playing the music with such authority, and John Ore swinging the quarter note into bad health........And then there’s the amazingly musical Frankie Dunlop who as always, carves out a uniquely individual approach to the jazz drum solo. I LOVE Dunlop’s playing (I always preferred this quartet to the later one with Larry Gales and Ben Riley, good and all as it was), it’s such a shame he went off to a showbiz career (including apparently, stints as a female impersonator!) and left so little recorded work behind.

So, this is the Monk quartet of the early 60s – and the critics were complaining about THIS!?