Jazz: The Loneliest Monk

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Losing the card cost Monk his slender livelihood, but he had a reputation as an oddball and the police were adamant. For six years Monk could not play in New York; though he made a few records and went out on the road now and then, he was all but silenced. "Everybody was saying Thelonious was weird or locked up," Nellie recalls. "But they just talked that way because they'd never see him. He hated to be asked why he wasn't working, and he didn't want to see anybody unless he could buy them a drink at least.

Besides, it hurts less to be passed over for jobs if you aren't around to hear the others' names called. It was a bad time. He even had to pay to get into Birdland." Monk was the man who was not with it, and jazz was passing him by.

Miles Davis had come on with his "impressionist" jazz style—a rubato blowing in spurts and swoons, free of any vibrato, cooler than ice. The Modern Jazz Quartet was playing a kind of introverted 17th century jazz behind inscrutable faces, and Dave Brubeck (TIME cover, Nov. 8, 1954) introduced polished sound that came with the complete approval of Darius Milhaud. Suddenly jazz—one of the loveliest and loneliest of sounds, the creation of sad and sensitive men—was awash with rondos and fugues. The hipsters began dressing like graduate students.

Money & Medicine. Monk was sustained during much of this bleak time by his friend, mascot and champion, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, 50. The baroness had abandoned the aseptic, punctual world of her family* for the formless life of New York's night people. In 1955 she acquired undeserved notoriety when Charlie Parker died in her apartment (BOP KING DIES IN HEIRESS' FLAT); she had merely made an honest stab at saving his life with gifts of money and medicine in his last few days. From then on, though, Nica cut a wide swath in the jazz world.

She is, after all, not a Count Basie or a Duke Ellington, but an honest-to-God Baroness; seeing her pull up in her Bentley with a purse crammed with Chivas Regal, the musicians took enormous pride in her friendship.

Monk was her immediate fascination, and Monk, who only has eyes for Nellie, cheerfully took her on as another mother. She gave him rides, rooms to compose and play in and, in 1957, help in getting back the vital cabaret card. The baroness, along with Monk's gentle manager, a Queens high school teacher named Harry Colomby, collected medical evidence that Monk was not a junkie, along with character references by jazzmen and musical scholars. The cops gave in, and for the first time in years Monk began playing regularly in New York. The music he made at the Five Spot with Tenorman John Coltrane was the talk of jazz.

Monk was making a small but admired inroad into the "funk" and "soul" movements that had superseded the "cool." Funk was a deeper reach into Negro culture than jazz had taken before, a restatement of church music and African rhythms, but its motive was the same as bop's—finding something that white musicians had not taken over and, if possible, something they would sound wrong playing.

Then Monk lost his card again.

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