Jazz: The Loneliest Monk

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 10)

Though Monk's career has been painful and often thankless, it has also been a tortoise-and-hare race with flashier, more ingratiating men—many of whom got lost in narcotic fogs, died early in squalor and disgrace or abandoned their promise, to fall silent on their horns. Monk goes on. It is his high philosophy to be different, and having steadily ignored all advice and all the fads and vogues of jazz that made lesser musicians grow rich around him, he now reaps the rewards of his conviction gladly but without surprise. He has a dignified, three-album-a-year contract with Columbia Records, his quartet could get bookings 52 weeks a year, and his present tour of Europe is almost a sell-out in 20 cities from Helsinki to Milan. In his first fat year, Monk earned $50,000, and on checks as well as autograph books he signs his grand name grandly, like a man drawing a bird.

Monk's lifework of 57 compositions is a diabolical and witty self-portrait, a string of stark snapshots of his life in New York. Changing meters, unique harmonies and oddly voiced chords create the effect of a desperate conversation in some other language, a fit of drunken laughter, a shout from a park at night. His melodies make mocking twins of naivete and cynicism, of ridicule and fond memory. Ruby, My Dear and Nutty are likably simple; Off Minor and Trinkle Tinkle are so complex that among pianists only Monk and his early protege, Bud Powell, have been able to improvise freely upon them.

Monk's inimitable piano style is such an integral part of the music he has written that few jazz pianists have much luck with even the Monk tunes that have become part of the standard jazz repertory. Monk himself plays with deliberate incaution, attacking the piano as if it were a carillon's keyboard or a finely tuned set of 88 drums. The array of sounds he divines from his Baldwin grand are beyond the reach of academic pianists; he caresses a note with the tremble of a bejeweled finger, then stomps it into its grave with a crash of elbow and forearm aimed with astonishing accuracy at a chromatic tone cluster an octave long.

Monk's best showcase has always been a cafe on Manhattan's Lower East Side called the Five Spot, where he ended a highly successful seven-month engagement in January. The ambiance of the Five Spot is perfect for Monk's mood—dark, a little dank, smoke-soaked and blue. Night after night, Monk would play his compositions—the same tunes over and over again, with what appeared to be continuing fascination with all that they have to say.

Then he would rise from the piano to perform his Monkish dance. It is always the same. His feet stir in a soft shuffle, spinning him slowly in small circles. His head rolls back until hat brim meets collar, while with both hands he twists his goatee into a sharp black scabbard. His eyes are hooded with an abstract sleepiness, his lips are pursed in a meditative O. His cultists may crowd the room, but when he moves among them, no one risks speaking: he is absorbed in a fragile trance, and his three sidemen play on while he dances alone in the darkness. At the last cry of the saxophone, he dashes to the piano and his hands strike the keys in a cat's pounce. From the first startled chord, his music has the urgency of fire bells.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9
  10. 10