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Music_222_Keepnews__Young_Monk__2001

Music_222_Keepnews__Young_Monk__2001 - Warning Concerning...

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Unformatted text preview: Warning Concerning Copyright Restrictions The c0pyright law of the United States (Title '17, United States Code) governs the making of photocopies or other reproductions of copyrighted material. Under certain conditions specified in the law, libraries and archives are authorized to furnish a photOCOpy or other reproduction. One ofthese specified conditions is that the photocopy or reproduction is not to be “used for any purpose other than private study, scholarship, or research.” If a user makes a request for, or later uses, a photocopy or reproduction for purposes in excess of “fair use,” that user may be liable for copyright infringement. This institution reserves the right to refuse to accept a copying order if, in its judgment, fulfillment of the order would involve violation of copyright law. Printing note: lfyou do not want to print this page. select pages 2 to the end on the print dialog screen. Readers on American Musicians The Thelon ious Monk Reader Scott DeVeaux, Series Editor .. edited by Pal-5W WINLW$C Wimifk‘s m2 fidm _ _ mun-“Rob van tierBliek _ _ - “damn‘BVV'LML' L" “ 03$}??? Mir/lion's and Before 1. Young Monk riter Peter Keepnews, the son of record producer and jazz writer Orrin Keepnews, has been collecting materiai about Monk’s life for several decades. An authority on Monk's life, he has published nu- merous articles and liner notes on him, as well as other jazz artists. Whereas most writers have relied on the common stock offacts about Monk’s childhood and early musical development, Keepnews has re- examined every factor story about Monk, and in this piece he provides illuminating evidence relating to Monk's early musical development, with new facts (in 1989) drawn from personal interviews with Monk‘s brother and sister.‘ Monk usually claimed that nobody influenced him, or that he was influenced by every musician he heard and all styles of music, or even that he influenced himself. Here the central question about where his musical style came From is answered through examin- ing and hypothesizing from descriptions of situations and individuals who played a role during Monk’s teenage years, with the conclusion 1. Before the publication of Leslie Gourse's Straight, No Chaser in 1997 (New York: Schirmer), few primary sources in the form of interviews with friends, family, or other musicians had been used in describing Monk's life. Minions and Before 5 that much of his musical development occurred before the legendary Minton’s sessions in 1940 and 1941. This article originally appeared as "Young Monk," Peter Keepnews, The Village Voice, August 8, 1989, pp. 18, 20721. It has been slightly revised by the author for this reprint. Used by permission of Peter Keepnews. Modern jazz was in full bloom when Thelonious Monk's first recording under his own name was released by the enterprising Blue Note label in early 1948. Eager to capitalize on the burgeoning bebop movement by identifying the 30-year-old Monk with it, the company sent out a breathless press release an- nouncing that it had ”actually found the person who was responsible for this whole new trend in music." Hyperbole, to be sure—but not entirely inaccu- rate. Monk may not have invented modern jazz by himself, but he was cer- tainly one of its primary architects, and he was working on the kind of advanced musical ideas that came to characterize bebop years before that word entered the jazz lexicon. A 1951 news item in the British music magazine Melody Maker inciuded the assertion that Monk "claims to have played bop since 1932." Monk was never enamored of such terminology and probably never made that claim. But it's clear that as a pianist and a songwriter he was, as the title of one album put it, “the unique Thelonious Monk" from an early age. According to his younger brother, Thomas Monk, and his older sister, Marion Monk White, his unusual musical style was already taking shape by his teenage years. The earliest available recorded evidence of Monk’s playing comes from his tenure as the house pianist at Minton's Playhouse in the early ‘405, Recordings of late-night jam sessions at that legendary Harlem nightclub reveal that Monk was already using many of the off~center accents and idiosyncratic voicings that would eventually be celebrated as profoundly influential and distinctively Monkian. His approach was not celebrated by everyone, how- ever,- even some of his fellow modernists were thrown off by it, although such older and supposedly more traditional-minded musicians as Art Tatum had no trouble appreciating it. Where did his stylevwith its broken rhythms, its alternately dense and stripped-down chords, and its creative use of silence—come from? After he became famous enough to attract interviewers, Monk dealt coyly with the question of who influenced him. He had three standard answers, all of them variations on the same evasive theme: Nobody influenced him,- he was influ- enced by every musician he heard,- he influenced himself. Such answers made 6 ascwmncs AND EARLY RECEPTION {1917—1954) it easy for commentators to conclude that Monk invented his style out of whole cloth. Yet as different as Monk's playing might have sounded, especially in the Minton’s days, its antecedents were there for anyone who had ears to discern them. Duke Ellington—whose reaction, the first time he heard a Monk record, was, ”Sounds like he’s stealing some of my stuff"—was an obvious in, fluence. A less obvious but equally important one was the great stride pianist James P. Johnson, who for a time lived near the Monk family in the San Juan Hill section of Manhattan, and who befriended Monk in the early '305. (At a 1957 recording session for the solo album Thelonious Himself, Monk remarked proudly of his blues improvisation ”Functional," ”I sound just like James P." in fact, he sounded almost nothing like James P. Johnson, who was not primarily a biues player, on that particular performance—but traces of the Johnson style can be heard on many of Monk's other recordings) Of course, the neighborhood in which he grew up was also an influence. San Juan Hill, a primarily black area in Manhattan's West 605 where Monk lived most of his life, was a thriving center of black culture. Eubie Blake and Noble Sissie's pioneering all—black musical Shuffle Along had its world premiere just a few blocks from the house where Monk's family lived, and the area was a home for many musicians, writers, and artists It was a rough neighborhood (Monk and his brother got into their share of fights), but also a very musical one. Barbara Monk and her three children had moved to New York from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in 1922. Three years later Monk’s father, Thelonious Sr, who had remained in North Carolina, probably for health reasons, rev joined the family. It was also about this time that the Monks moved into an apartment building on West 63rd Street that was part of the Phipps Houses. An early example of subsidized housing built specifically for African Ameri- cans, the Phipps Houses were the brainchild of philanthropist Henry Phipps, who referred to them as “model tenements” because they were designed to of- fer more living space, sunlight, and other advantages than the buildings in which most black New Yorkers were then living. ”They used to call them the new houses, way back then in the '203," Mar- ion White recalls. ”We were lucky to get in. They had steam heat, and each apartment had its own bathroom.” Another amenity that the Monks had in their new threeeroom apartment was a piano, at which Thelonious Sr—who, after arriving in New York, worked first as a longshoreman and then in the boiler room of a theater_spent much of his spare time. ”My father was gifted as far as music was concerned," says Thomas Monk. ”He never had the opportunity to study, but he was gifted, really. He just had the ear for music.” A'li'iuon's (”Iii Before 7 The elder Monk was self-taught. He played what his son Thomas recalls as ”honky-tonk" piano, which probably contained elements of both ragtime and boogie-woogie, Although Marion \White says that her father didn't so much play the piano as ”play at it,” his playing was pervasive in the Monks' small apartment. Thelonious Sr, taught his sons to play the Jews harp—an instrument whose insistent, droning quality offers intriguing parallels to the sound of much of his sons later music He also was a talented harmonica player, Thomas Monk re- calls his father being able to produce a variety of train sounds on that instru- ment. (Train sounds would later occupy a prominent place in the Thelonious Monk oeuvre,- indeed, he built entire compOsitions around pianistic versions of such sound—notably ”Little Rootie Tootie," which he dedicated to his son, also named Thelonious. The open chords characteristic of the harmonica found a frequent echo in Monk‘s writing and playing.) A variety of medical problems prompted Thelonious Monk Sr. to move back to the South in the late '20s, but by that time he had left his mark on his older son, who was already beginning to pick out melodies on the family pi- ano. The first instrument young Thelonious studied formally was the trum- pet, but he would look over his sister's shoulder as she practiced piano, and when she stopped taking lessons (her enthusiasm for the keyboard was as low as her brother's was high, she says,- she really wanted to play the saxophone), their mother made a momentous decision. In those days, remembers Marion White, ”Most of the boys took violin or horn and the girls took piano. And that's the way it was [in the Monk family] until We found out that he didn't iike the trumpet and I didn’t like the piano.” When Thelonious Monk was i2, a neighborhood teacher, a Mr, Wolf for Wolfe), who had worked with Mar- ion, undertook to explain the rules of the keyboard to Thelonious—rules he would, before too long, systematically bend to his own ends. It was under the tutelage of Mr, Wolf that Monk learned the rudiments of musical notation, with which in later years he would have a loveehate rela- tionship. Although all his compositions were notated, he often refused to let his sidemen see the sheet music, preferring to let them learn his tunes by playing rather than reading them. During his brief tenure as a piano student (probably less than a year), he began to confront the fact that he would never be a virtuoso in the traditional sense. Thelonious Monk's unorthodox piano style was essentially a matter of in- spiration, but also a matter of practical necessity: Monk was tall and muscular, but he had unusually small hands. "He had the smallest hands for a piano player,” Thomas Monk recalls. “He had a friend named Louis Taylor who 3 BEGINNINGS AND EARLY RECEPTION {1917—1954} played the piano. Louis had big hands, like the finer piano players. They have that wide stretch. And my brother used to sort of get aggravated because he couldn't stretch like Louis or the other piano players.” This meant that the wide left-hand intervals characteristic of stride piano were beyond Monk's reach, and the graceful execution of arpeggios was difficult for him. Armed with the fortuitous combination of an agile imagination and an indomitable stubbornness, Monk didn't so much compensate for those apparent limita- tions as turn them into advantages. Gradually, young Monk developed an approach to the piano that, while violating standard ideas of how the instrument should be played, enabled him to express himself. He discovered he could imply certain notes in a chord without playing them, through the judicious use of overtones, he discovered he could hit more of the notes he wanted to hit if he kept his fingers flat on the keyboard rather than curving them the way piano students are invariably taught. Such experimentation may not have gone over with Mr. Wolf, but it represented an early example of Monk's singlevmindedness. ”He did what he wanted to do,” Thomas Monk says. “If somebody would try to make him do something, he would automatically rebel against it. He had his own ideas about things, and once his mind was made up about something nobody could change it." Not all of the unorthodox elements in Monk's style were in place when he stopped taking piano lessons, but his interest in jazz certainly was. By the time he was 15, he had formed a small band with some friends from the neighborhood, including a drummer named Morris Simpson and a saxophon— ist remembered only as "Dukey." They played for dances at the neighborhood community center, and Marion White remembers going to the Apollo several times to see her brother's band participate in—and winithe Harlem the- ater's famous amateur competition. (Monk's victories at the Apollo are a mat- ter of family legend, but not a matter of historical record. No documentation exists of the weekly amateur contest's winners, and the contest didn't begin until shortly after Monk had left New York at the age of I6-——which means that if he did ever win the contest, it was probably at a more advanced age than the oft-told story has it.) Monk had absorbed an impressive amount of jazz knowledge in a relatively short time; his unique style was in its formative stages, but his playing was not so far outside the mainstream that it couldn't be grasped by lindy-hoppers and the notoriously critical Apollo audience. By this time, Thelonious and everyone who knew him well recognized that playing the piano was what he wanted to do with his life. Yet music did not then consume his entire existence. He was an exceptional student, one of Minions and Before 9 the first blacks to be accepted at the highly competitive Stuyvesant High School, where he excelled in math and physics. He played basketball, check- ers, and Ping—Pong with a passion retained well into adulthood. lntense, self- absorbed, and so direct in his dealings with other people that his honesty sometimes got him into trouble, Thelonious Monk was hardly the typical teenager. But neither was he the mad genius ofjazz mythology, totally ob- sessed with his music. Still, music was the center of his life, and his determination to make a liv— ing at it was made considerably easier by his mother, who worked for the city as a cleaning woman and who never hesitated to offer him her total sup- port¥financial as well as emotional. “My mother never figured I should do anything else," he told Valerie Wilmer in 1965. ”She was with me. If I wanted to play music, it was all right with her.”2 His sister, who worked for the tele- phone company and continued to live at home for several years, also pitched in. ”He was lucky that he lived with his mother and his sister," she laughs. ”You've got to have somebody behind you when you're following one road, because otherwise you can't make it. All artists have to sufferfiunless they're at home." Thomas Monk—who briefly pursued a career as a prizefighter before be- coming first a policeman and then a bridge-and-tunnel worker—remembers only one instance of his brother breaking his vow to do nothing but music for his living. "One time he ventured to work for a guy namedJDe, an iceman. He carried ice,- it was pretty strenuous work. He worked one day and said he’d never do that again." His mother's support was put to the test in 1934 when Monk, at age 16, decided he wanted to drop out of Stuyvesant and join some of his musician friends from the neighborhood who were going on the road with a woman evangelist. The evangelist—whose name no one seems to know or remem- ber—undertook to persuade Barbara Monk that it was time to loosen the apron strings. ”She had to do a lot of convincing for Mama to let him go,” Thomas Monk recalls. ”She finally conceded ’cause his heart was so bent on going. She was convinced that it was something that would be beneficial to him, ‘cause he was playing the piano and that’s what he wanted to do. So she let him go. And when he came back, he had changed his style of playing" By the time Thelonious hit the road, he was already hard at work on new concepts of harmony, rhythm, and melody. His brother and sister recall him sitting at the piano for hours at a time, often painstakingly working out varia- 2. Valerie Wilmer, "Monk on Monk," Down Beat, June 3, 1965, p. 20. Ed. 10 ascmnmcs AND EARLY RECEPTION (ism—1954) tions on a familiar old song. His mature style was in the process of crystallize ing, during his two years on the road, it took shape. Monk had played hymns and other religious music prior to his departure; he frequently accompanied his mother when she sang at the local Baptist church. But playing in storefront churches and at tent shows. over the course of what turned out to be a twowyear road trip, presented new Challenges that accelerated his development as a pianist. Faced with the need to make himself heard over noisy crowds, he discovered that through skillful use of the pedals and other techniques, he could get a bigger sound from the instrument. Faced day after day with the simple harmonics of gospel music, Monk found a way to make those harmonies his own, to maintain the integrity of the songs with” out losing his identity in them. By the time he returned to New York in 1936, his style was unequivocably original The protean pianist Mary Lou \Wiiliams, who was living in Kansas Ci ry in the mid—305, saw Monk at several after—hours jam sessions during his; ex, tended stay there. "He was one of the original modernists all right," she told Melody Maker in 1954, ”playing pretty much the same harmonies then that he's playing now."3 Other musicians who saw Monk in upstate New York during the same period have recalled him playing in the traditional stride style, but he may have been acceding to the demands of a paying gig. \Williams's recol— lections indicate that Monk's thinking was already in advance of the main— stream four or five years before Minton‘s. During his years with the evangelist or very soon after, Monk began writ- ing music in earnest. He probably wrote his famous composition, “Round Midnight," in those years, He definitely wrote such cornerstones of his repers toire as ”We”, You Needn't" and "Ruby, My Dear.” The inspiration for the lat- ter piece, one of his most beautiful ballads, was his sister's best friend, a dietician named Ruby Richardson, whom he met shortly after he returned to New York and who soon became his first serious girlfriend. As often as not, the first people to hear Monk's new compositions were his brother and sister. Marion White enjoyed the opportunity to sample her brother's creativity: Thomas Monk, who was more interested in sports than music, offered a less receptive ear. "He'd tell me, 'Sit down and listen,” says Thomas, bemused a half-century after the fact by his own indifference to his brother’s budding genius. "And I had to sit there and listen to him play these songs. He'd ask me, ’How's that sound?' and I'd say, 'That sounds all right.’ But I didn't know. I wasn't musically inclined. In order for me to get away, l 3, Excerpts from the Melody Maker articles are reprinted beginning on p. 11. Minions and Before 11 had to say, 'Oh, that sounds nice!’ Otherwise l'd have to sit there and listen to him play." Four years elapsed between the time Monk returned from the road and the start of the epochal Minton's engagement. During those years he paid his share of dues. His early professional experience in New York included, as he later told a friend, jobs backing up singers “who sing all kinds of songs and fuck up and blame it on the musicians," as weli as at least one brief stint with a polka band. At Minton's, where Monk had the opportunity to interact with such kin- dred musical spirits as Kenny Ciarke, Charlie Christian, and Dizzy Gillespie, the ideas he was developing began to bear fruit. When he per...
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