Jazz: The Loneliest Monk

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Monk, the baroness, and Monk's present saxophonist, Charlie Rouse, 39, were driving through Delaware for a week's work in Baltimore. Monk stopped at a motel for a drink of water, and when he lingered in his imposing manner, the manager called the police.

Monk was back in the Bentley when the cops arrived, and he held fast to the steering wheel when they tried to pull him out—on the Monkish ground that he had done nothing to deserve their attention. Even though the baroness shrieked to watch out for his hands, the furious cops gave his knuckles such a beating that he bears the lumps to this day. The baroness took the rap for "some loose marijuana" found in the trunk, but after three years' legal maneuvering she was acquitted. No narcotics charges were placed against Monk, but because of the scandal the police again picked up his card.

You Tell 'Em. Two years later, after further lobbying at Headquarters, Monk returned to the scene. Since then his luck has changed. Three years have passed without a whisper of trouble.

Abroad, at least, he is approached as if he were a visiting professor. (Interview on an Amsterdam radio station last week: "Who has had the greatest influence on your playing, Mr. Monk?" "Well, me, of course.") Most pleasing of all to Monk is a new quartet led by Soprano Saxophonist Steve Lacy that is dedicated solely to the propagation of Monk's music. In the past Monk has been the only voice of his music; he even has trouble finding sidemen.

His present accompanists—Rouse on tenor, Butch Warren, 24, on bass, and Ben Riley, 30, on drums—have a good feeling for his music. Rouse is a hard-sound player who knows that his instrument suggests a human cry more than a bird song, and he plays as if he is speaking the truth. Warren's rich, loping bass is well suited to Monk's rhythms if not his harmonic ideals; he is like a pony in pasture who traces his mother's footsteps without stealing her grace. Riley has just joined the band, but he could be the man Monk has been looking for. A great drummer, as the nonpareil Baby Dodds once observed, "ought to make the other fellas feel like playing." Riley does exactly that, with a subtle, very musical use of the drums that forsakes thunder for thoughtfulness.

Monk's sidemen traditionally hang back, smiling and relaxed, and apart from an occasional Rouse solo, they seem content to let Monk lead. "That's right, Monk," they seem to be saying, "you tell 'em, baby." But Monk demands that musicians be themselves. "A man's a genius just for looking like himself," he will say. "Play yourself!" With such injunctions in the air, the quartet's performances are uneven. Some nights all four play as though their very lives are at stake; some nights, wanting inspiration, all four sink without a bubble. But it is part of Monk's mystique never to fire anyone. He just waits, hoping to teach, trusting that a man who cannot learn will eventually sense the master's indifference and discreetly abandon ship.

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