Jazz: The Loneliest Monk

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The music was mainly Monk's own— nine compositions from the early / Mean You to Oska T., which he wrote last summer under a title that is his own transcription of an Englishman's saying "Ask for T." ("And the T," says Thelonious, "is me.") The concert was the most successful jazz event of the season, and Monk greeted his triumph with grace and style. At the piano he turned to like a blacksmith at a cranky forge— foot flapping madly, a moan of exertion fleeing his lips. The music he made suggested that the better he is received by his audience the better he gets.

Happenings in Harlem. For Monk, the pleasure of playing in Philharmonic Hall was mainly geographical. The hall was built three blocks from the home he has occupied for nearly 40 years, and Monk serenely regards the choice of the site as a favor to him from the city fathers, a personal convenience, along with the new bank and the other refinements that urban renewal has brought to his old turf. The neighborhood, in Manhattan's West 60s, is called San Juan Hill. It is one of the oldest and most decent of the city's Negro ghettos. Monk's family settled there in 1924, coming north from Rocky Mount, N.C., where Thelonious was born.

He was a quiet, obedient, polite child, but his name very quickly set him apart.

"Nobody messed with Thelonious," he recalls, "but they used to call me 'Monkey,' and you know what a drag that was." His father returned to the South alone to recover from a long illness, leaving Monk's mother, a sternly correct civil servant, to work hard to give her three children a genteel polish. At eleven, Thelonious began weekly piano lessons at 75¢ an hour.

It took Monk only a year to discover that the pianists he really admired were not in the books—such players as Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson. By the time he was 14, Monk was playing jazz at hard-times "rent parties" up in Harlem. He soon began turning up every Wednesday for amateur night at the Apollo Theater, but he won so often that he was eventually barred from the show. He was playing stride piano—a single note on the first and third beats of the bar, a chord on the second and fourth. Unable to play with the rococo wizardry of Art Tatum or Teddy Wilson, though, he found a way of his own. His small hands and his unusual harmonic sense made his style unique.

Monk quit high school at 16 to go on tour with a divine healer—"we played and she healed." But within a year he was back in New York, playing the piano at Kelly's Stable on 52nd Street.

The street was jumping in those days, and in advance of the vogue, Monk bought a zoot suit and grew a beard; his mood, for a change, was just right for the time. The jazz world was astir under the crushing weight of swing; the big dance bands had carried off the healthiest child of Negro music and starved it of its spirit until its parents no longer recognized it. In defiant self-defense, Negro players were developing something new—"something they can't play," Monk once called it—and at 19, Monk got to the heart of things by joining the house band at Minton's.

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