Thelonious Monk

It’s Thelonious Monk’s birthday today. He was born on October 10, 1917 which would make him a zillion years old almost. Hard to believe. You listen to a Monk tune and it sounds now, right now, not a zillion years old. Trane is like that too. They were both from North Carolina, a hop, skip and a decade apart. People don’ t come from small towns in North Carolina and change music forever anymore. Those were different times.

I never saw Monk, something I’ve always regretted. I have the documentaries,  Straight, No Chaser and the others, and watch him play, hear him speak, marvel at his dancing crazy circles across the stage. I think man, if only I could have been there. I could have seen him, in his later years, but I was nowhere near hip enough. It takes age to realize what how unhip you’d been as a kid. Unhip at least to what had been around since before you were born. You always catch on too late. But then I dove in deep. A zillion CD’s, listening all the time. The movie Straight, No Chaser. The book Straight, No Chaser. I still don’t have all his albums, there are so many. What an amazing string of releases, across what, four labels?  Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside and a big fat deal with Columbia. His music—the tunes were terrific, Monk could write a memorable melody to say the least, and his whole approach to the piano was kind of crazy. Powerful fingers plonking out big crashes of chords, or hanging above the keyboard, waiting to pounce. Then he’d whomp a comp so hard it might startle a more fragile band, but his players dealt with it, thrived on it, though at times might have been confused by it. And I loved the way he’d tinkle the keys between those whomps, laying out the melody with big fat notes, like Count Basie notes but lurching and sudden and surprisingly sensitive. I loved his striding swing, a stride you don’t hear anymore and probably didn’t hear much then. But Monk loved to stride. And then there were the ballads. They lilted in their own way and broke my heart.  On Monk Himself, I’d listen to all those out-takes of Round Midnight, one try after another, the man struggling to come up with exactly the music he wanted. Finally, beautifully, it emerges. It’s almost spooky. The album was recorded on April 12 and 16, 1957, but if you wade through the liner notes (this was back when I waded through liner notes) it says how actually that was from a late night session on April 5. The studio was in New York City somewhere, I’d have to dig out the liner notes for the street and borough. About that exact same time, an hour south along the Jersey shore but closer as a crow would fly, I was being born. A nice coincidence. No significance, but a nice coincidence for me, anyway. I thought about telling someone but never did. They wouldn’t get it. I just listen to Monk laboring through Round Midnight and imagine Mom laboring with me. I was a rough birth, a huge kid, her first. They used forceps back then, just squeezed and pulled as she squeezed and pushed. Finally, about the time Monk worked out the melody, I emerged. He played, I bawled.

I think about this a lot as I listen to Monk. I don’t dwell on it, but I think about it.

Back in 2006 some hip brewery in northern California came up with a rich brown ale and called it Brother Thelonious. I can’t remember why they called it that, or what was in it, but I remember it was bitter and dark. One of those Belgian things. You can still buy it. I see it at jazz parties, sometimes, though it ain’t cheap and jazz people are so I don’t see it that often. The brewery had a Brother Thelonious release party in Santa Monica in 2006. (Can a beer have a release party?) The Monk Institute provided the music..Walter Smith III and I believe Ambrose Akinmusire were featured soloists. Maybe even Gerald Clayton. They didn’t look too thrilled performing at a beer party. The tunes were all Monk. A little restrained, maybe–the Institute keeps a tight leash–but then the marketers didn’t want to scare the folks. Monk done Monkishly can still scare the folks. We got several bottles of the ale–they were handing them out–but they were guzzled by lushes at our Christmas party. I recall them discussing Monk in slurred admiration. We also got the cool poster. It still hangs in the kitchen. Been there six years now. Happy birthday, Thelonious. If it hadn’t been for you I’d never have become a jazz writer. If it hadn’t been for you I’d never have been. Well, not really, but there hasn’t been a birthday of mine in years that I haven’t listened to that final take of Round Midnight.

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