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Straight, No Chaser: The Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk: His Life and Music
(Berkeley Hills Books)
Laurent de Wilde
(Marlowe & Company)
The Complete Blue Note Recordings
By Tim Sheridan
In a moment captured in the documentary film Straight, No Chaser, Thelonious Monk receives the gift of a silver pen from his friend and patron Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter. Monk promptly tests the pen by scribbling on a piece of paper, and asks her, “Can you read that?” He grins slightly. “You get somebody to decipher that for you and tell you what it means. It’ll upset you. You’ll flip. I mean flip for real.” This is the type of game Monk loved to play, in both conversation and composition. His yen for verbal and musical puzzles, combined with his reticence around interviewers, made Monk an enigma to his fans and even many of his friends. It also made him a tantalizing target for biographers. After all, everyone loves a good mystery.
His personal life aside, Thelonious Sphere Monk Jr. was a tough nut to crack. His angular attack on the piano connected the older stride style of playing to the more dissonant and challenging form of bebop. For much of his career many critics and jazz fans considered his unusual chords bad piano playing, pure and simple, but he was cited by such legends as Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane as a profound influence. His challenging compositions confounded many a musician, but they became some of the most beloved standards in all of music. But it’s Monk’s life offstage that makes him especially compelling: his odd behavior, his unusual friendships, and his mysterious abandonment of music years before his death.
Monk’s mystery has recently inspired no fewer than four books–three biographies and one children’s picture book. Reading these books in succession is a bit like listening to a conversation between four Monk fans who are sitting in a jazz joint enjoying his music. There’s the fanatic record collector, the awestruck musician, the detail-minded journalist, and the jazz-loving illustrator, each determined to offer a new perspective on Monk. But once the conversation dies down, we know more about the participants than the enigma they have attempted to dissect. And the music plays on.
Amazingly, Thomas Fitterling’s Thelonious Monk: His Life and Music was the first book published on Monk in English (and it’s a translation from German, published in 1987). The author is a German jazz musician and producer, but his book is so obsessed with Monk’s recorded output and his own opinions of Monk’s performances that it might as well have been written by a clerk in a jazz record shop. The 77-page biographical sketch that opens the book is based almost entirely on previously published books, magazine articles, and other secondhand sources. Only one original interview is noted in his list of sources. As a result the sketch is peppered with misinformation, such as the presentation of an oft-repeated legend about Bud Powell as simple fact: Fitterling states that Powell was once beaten by police as he came to Monk’s aid, leading to permanent mental problems. Numerous other accounts, some outlined in Leslie Gourse’s Straight, No Chaser, have methodically disputed its veracity.
But Fitterling isn’t all that interested in getting to the bottom of such matters. He’s far more interested in Monk’s catalog. Even the brief biography is structured according to Monk’s tenure with different record labels: Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside, and Columbia. The bulk of the work is devoted to Fitterling’s assessment of Monk’s music, including his suggestions for a “representative Monk collection.” This tiresome section runs on for more than 120 pages.
A fellow musician manages to offer a more engaging–but no less introspective–consideration of Monk. Not really a formal biography, Laurent de Wilde’s Monk attempts to explore Monk’s spirit, trying to capture the environment of Monk’s surroundings as he grew artistically. That de Wilde has played with such luminaries as Joshua Redman and Dee Dee Bridgewater, as well as releasing six albums of his own, suggests he has a firm grasp on the musician’s perspective. Unfortunately, his bold efforts often slide into solipsistic rambling, as when he tries to describe the nature of bebop rhythms: “When you see a protozoa through a microscope, it looks like it’s dancing to a James Brown record played at 78 rpm. And in science class I couldn’t help imagining tiny cymbals or drums at the ends of the parameciums’ vibrating hairs, as they made microscopic music.”
To his credit, de Wilde does convey something of Monk’s character. He relates one story told to him by saxophonist Steve Lacy, who claims he once saw a rabbit, presumably a family pet, run across the living room in Monk’s home. When Lacy remarked on the animal, Monk said, “What are you talking about? There’s no rabbit there.” Though Lacy assumes to this day that Monk was joking, Monk never did acknowledge the bunny.
Of the four books, Leslie Gourse’s well-researched Straight, No Chaser puts up the most hard facts about Monk’s life–for better or worse. Gourse, a renowned jazz biographer, previously tackled Sarah Vaughan, Nat “King” Cole, Joe Williams, and Louis Armstrong, so her latest effort was greatly anticipated. But her book is more of a life inventory than a biography. When describing Monk’s role in Coleman Hawkins’s group in 1944, for instance, Gourse overburdens the reader thusly:
“Billy Taylor, who was living in town by then and playing at the Three Deuces on West 52nd Street, recalled John Simmons as the bassist and Shadow Wilson on drums. They may also have played with the Hawkins group at that time, since it had some personnel changes during its bookings there until mid-August….Monk stayed in Coleman Hawkins’ group, but even he may have been occasionally replaced by others–John Malachi, a Washington-based pianist and a friend of singer Billy Eckstine for one. Malachi played in Eckstine’s big band in the 1940s. Hawk’s group appeared opposite singer Billie Holiday at the Downbeat Club, as Billy Taylor remembered.”
Digressions like this derail the narrative repeatedly. Gourse is obviously attempting to shed light on Monk by documenting every detail of his life, but instead she piles up sandbag after sandbag between the reader and the subject.
Perhaps the most charming approach to Monk is Chris Raschka’s Mysterious Thelonious. Also the author of Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, Raschka attempts to get at the essence of the musician by zooming in on one resonant piece of music. Raschka assigns colors to the 12 notes of the chromatic scale and uses them to illustrate Monk’s “Misterioso” over 20-some pages. The accompanying text repeats variations on such phrases as “This is a story about music” and “There were no wrong notes on his piano,” the words scattered around the page presumably to evoke improvisation. Raschka probably thought he was creating a work for both parents and children to enjoy, but in reality the book is too limited to appeal to adults and too cryptic to appeal to kids. But I’ll bet Raschka had a great time making it.
With all this energy applied to unmasking Monk, it’s amusing to note that the easiest and most enjoyable view of his personality is through his music. And while Monk’s recorded output was huge (as Fitterling’s discography attests), his first recordings as a bandleader, for Blue Note Records, are cited by almost all his biographers as his best. Monk had been composing for many years before the sessions, which is why so many of his legendary tunes are included on the box set of the complete Blue Note recordings–“Straight No Chaser,” “‘Round Midnight,” “Ruby My Dear,” and many others. Though the practice of including alternate takes right after the original gets annoying on repeated listening, the variation between versions is admittedly fascinating. One disc even includes a legendary live set with John Coltrane at New York’s Five Spot in 1958, revealing elements of Monk’s influence on the great saxophonist.
Looking now at the titles of some of his compositions, it almost seems that Monk might have been baiting his biographers–not only with “Misterioso” but also “Evidence,” “Introspection,” “Monk’s Mood,” “Who Knows,” and the hilariously cryptic “Epistrophy.” But listening to the music–the sharp corners of “Criss Cross” and the lush elegance of “Ask Me Now”–it’s easy enough to slip into Monk’s mind. And when you do, you’ll flip. I mean flip for real.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.