Jazz: The Loneliest Monk

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Racial woes are at the heart of much bad behavior in jazz, and the racial question is largely a confusion between life and art. Negroes say whites cannot play, when they mean that whites have always taken more money out of jazz than their music warranted. Whites complain of "Crow Jim" when what they mean is that work is scarcer than ever—even for them. The fact is that most of the best jazz musicians are Negroes and there is very little work to go around on either side.

At bars and back tables in the 20 or so good jazz clubs in the country, talented, frustrated musicians—many of them historic figures in jazz—hang around in the hope of hearing their names called, like longshoremen at a midnight shape-up. Junkies who were good players a year ago swoop through the clubs in search of a touch, faces faintly dusty, feet itching, nodding, scratching. The simple jazz fans in the audience sit shivering in the cold fog of hostility the players blow down from the stand. A dig-we-must panic inhibits them from displaying any enthusiasm— which only further convinces the players that their music is lost on the wind.

An Oriental Garden. Monk surveys these sad facts with some bitterness. "I don't have any musician friends," he says. "I was friends to lots of musicians, but looks like they weren't friends to me." He sometimes makes quiet and kindly gestures—such as sending some money to Bud Powell, caged in a tuberculosis sanatorium outside Paris—but his words are hard. "All you're supposed to do is lay down the sounds and let the people pick up on them," he says.

"If you ain't doing that, you just ain't a musician. Nothing more to it than that." Now that his turn has come, Monk cuts a fine figure on the scene. Nellie spends a hysterical hour every evening getting him into his ensemble, and when he steps out the door he looks faintly like an Oriental garden—subtle colors echoing back and forth, prim suits and silk shirts glimmering discreetly. He spends hours standing around with his band, talking in his unpenetrable, oracular mode. "All ways know, always night, all ways know—and dig the way I say 'all ways,' " he says, smiling mysteriously. When he is playing anywhere near New York, the baroness comes to drive him home, and they fly off in the Bentley, content in the knowledge that there is no one remotely like either one of them under the sun. They race against the lights for the hell of it, and when the car pulls up in Monk's block, he skips out and disappears into his old $39-a-month apartment. The baroness then drives home to Weehawken, where she lives in a luxurious bedroom oasis, surrounded by the reeking squalor her 32 cats have created in the other rooms.

Monk spends lazy days at home with Nellie—"layin' dead," he calls it. Their two children, Thelonious, 14, and Barbara, 10, are off in boarding schools, and Monk's slumbers go undisturbed.

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