Jazz: The Loneliest Monk

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Everyone who came to meet his plane wore a fur hat, and the sight was too much for him to bear. "Man, we got to have those!" he told his sidemen, and for fear that the hat stores would be closed before they could get to downtown Helsinki, they fled from the welcome-to-Finland ceremonies as fast as decency permitted. And sure enough, when Thelonious Monk shambled out on the stage of the Kulttuuritalo that night to the spirited applause of 2,500 young Finns, there on his head was a splendid creation in fake lamb's-wool.

At every turn of his long life in jazz, Monk's hats have described him almost as well as the name his parents had the crystal vision to invent for him 43 years ago — Thelonious Sphere Monk. It sounds like an alchemist's formula or a yoga ritual, but during the many years when its owner merely strayed through life (absurd beneath a baseball cap), it was the perfect name for the legends dreamed up to account for his sad silence. "Thelonious Monk? He's a recluse, man." In the mid-'40s, when Monk's reputation at last took hold in the jazz underground, his name and his mystic utterances ("It's always night or we wouldn't need light") made him seem the ideal Dharma Bum to an audience of hipsters: anyone who wears a Chinese coolie hat and has a name like that must be cool.

High Philosophy. Now Monk has arrived at the summit of serious recognition he deserved all along, and his name is spoken with the quiet reverence that jazz itself has come to demand. His music is discussed in composition courses at Juilliard, sophisticates find in it affinities with Webern, and French Critic Andre Hodeir hails him as the first jazzman to have "a feeling for specifically modern esthetic values." The complexity jazz has lately acquired has always been present in Monk's music, and there is hardly a jazz musician playing who is not in some way indebted to him. On his tours last year he bought a silk skullcap in Tokyo and a proper chapeau at Christian Dior's in Paris; when he comes home to New York next month with his Finnish lid, he will say with inner glee, "Yeah—I got it in Helsinki." The spectacle of Monk at large in Europe last week was cheerful evidence of his new fame—and evidence, too, of how far jazz has come from its Deep South beginnings. In Amsterdam, Monk and his men were greeted by a sellout crowd of 2,000 in the Concertgebouw, and their DÜsseldorf audience was so responsive that Monk gave the Germans his highest blessing: "These cats are with it!" The Swedes were even more hip; Monk played to a Stockholm audience that applauded some of his compositions on the first few bars, as if he were Frank Sinatra singing Night and Day, and Swedish television broadcast the whole concert live. Such European enthusiasm for a breed of cat many Americans still consider weird, if not downright wicked, may seem something of a puzzle. But to jazzmen touring Europe, it is one more proof that the limits of the art at home are more sociological than esthetic.

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