Jazz: The Loneliest Monk

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The New Sound. All the best players of the time would drop by to sit in at Minton's. Saxophonist Charlie ("Bird") Parker, Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Drummer Kenny Clarke and Guitarist Charlie Christian were all regulars and, in fitful collaboration with them, Monk presided at the birth of bop. His playing was a needling inspiration to the others. Rhythms scrambled forward at his touch; the oblique boldness of his harmonies forced the horn players into flights the likes of which had never been heard before. "The Monk runs deep," Bird would say, and with some reluctance Monk became "the High Priest of Bebop." The name of the new sound, Monk now says, was a slight misunderstanding of his invention: "I was calling it bipbop, but the others must have heard me wrong." When bop drifted out of Harlem and into wider popularity after the war, Monk was already embarked on his long and lonely scuffle. Straight bop— which still determines the rhythm sense of most jazzmen—was only a passing phase for Monk. He was outside the mainstream, playing a lean, dissonant, unresolved jazz that most players found perilously difficult to accompany. Many musicians resented him, and he quickly lost his grip on steady jobs. Alone in his room, where he had composed his earliest music—'Round Midnight, Well, You Needn't, Ruby, My Dear—he worked or simply stared at the picture of Billie Holiday tacked to his ceiling.

In 1947 he made his first recording under his own name and witnessed, to his horror, a breathless publicity campaign that sounded as if the Abominable Snowman had been caged by Blue Note Records.

The same year, Monk married a neighborhood girl named Nellie Smith, who had served a long and affectionate apprenticeship lighting his cigarettes and washing his dishes. Monk had always been unusually devoted to his mother; Nellie simply moved into his room so he could stay home with mom. Thus, to his intense satisfaction, he had two mothers. He still found jobs hard to come by, so Nellie went to work as a clerk to buy him clothes and cheer him up with pocket money.

A Drink at Least. Things were terrible until 1951, when they got worse.

Monk was arrested along with Bud Powell when a packet of heroin was found in their possession. Monk had always been "clean," but he refused to let Powell take the rap alone. "Every day I would plead with him," Nellie says. " 'Thelonious, get yourself out of this trouble. You didn't do anything.' But he'd just say, 'Nellie, I have to walk the streets when I get out. I can't talk.'" Monk held his silence and was given 60 days in jail.

As soon as he was released, the police canceled his "cabaret card," a document required of all entertainers who appear in New York nightclubs.

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