TT 226: Thelonious Monk, Alone
A dozen years ago I wrote notes for the Jazz Icons DVD release of Thelonious Monk’s long solo video made in Paris in 1969. That same footage is now featured in a new documentary by Alain Gomis, Rewind and Play.
There’s a lot of Monk on record, and also a lot of Monk on video. It is especially relevant to see Monk on video. Incredible.
Al Foster went out of his way to tell me how much he liked my notes on the Jazz Icons issue. After a dozen years, I am happy to get a chance to tighten a few corners of my original essay.
Monk Solo in 1969
The longest and best video of Thelonious Monk in a solo piano context was made for French television. Before playing a note, the artist obliterates this potentially stifling “educational” or “classical” environment through wardrobe, accessories, and attitude. An ashtray is on the piano, and between “Epistrophy” and “‘Round Midnight” two tall tumbler glasses appear. Strangely, a microphone is pointed at his face; perhaps it is supposed to pick up his grunting and humming. Below a close-fitting beanie and tightly-buttoned suit, his skin glistens with sweat. That heavy ring on the right pinky would be too cumbersome for most pianists. Finally, the beard is immaculate.
Thelonious Monk is for anybody and everyone, regardless of background. It doesn’t matter if they lack knowledge about jazz conventions and traditions: a civilian can still look at this video and instantly appreciate that something important and unusual is going on.
It’s the same gritty school as Bud Powell and Art Tatum, where a piano’s tuning, size, and pedigree are almost irrelevant. The minute Monk lays his hands on this big, slightly out-of-tune Steinway, it becomes a “Monk piano.” Close-ups reveal certain alchemic secrets: uneven releases (some say that Monk could “bend” notes like a blues singer), smooth southpaw jumps, accents with the whole arm, unorthodox fingerings.
His pulsing and pounding beat is the heart of the matter. Watching Monk dance at the piano, I’m reminded of drummer Ed Blackwell, who was famous for relating the folklore of Africa to jazz swing. There was a sophisticated ambience when Blackwell let loose with a strong downbeat, a single attack that was simultaneously casual and deadly serious.
Monk’s music is also full of dark downbeats that drop in just the right place, creating an ancient space for ultra-modern variations. His piano is a glorious symphony of percussion: bass drum and snare in the left hand, tuned timbales in the mid-register, bell patterns on top. Arpeggios and cascades are wind chimes. Conventional jazz harmony built on thirds — like that of Bill Evans and his children — rarely suggests tintinnabulation the way that Monk’s wide open intervals do.
To this day, some perceive Monk as limited technically, an astonishing opinion that had wide currency in his lifetime. Admittedly, those of us who claim that Monk was a virtuoso are usually referring to his conceptual and rhythmic excellence, not to his ability to play thousands of notes at speed. Still, few pianists with a conventionally fluid technique could pull off the exuberant two-fisted stride of the concluding “Nice Work if You Can Get It.” At the end, Monk lunges up and looks around, as though ready to take on all challengers.
Devoted fans who know Monk’s whole discography/repertoire will be delighted to learn about four pieces that are otherwise unavailable in solo versions by the composer: “Thelonious,” “Epistrophy,” “Ugly Beauty,” and “Coming on the Hudson.” (In the bonus reel, Monk needs a moment at soundcheck to remember how “Thelonious” goes. The form is so clear, the compositional ideas so lucid, the genre unique. Monk smiles as he naughtily repeats the last phrase a few too many times.)
“Ugly Beauty,” his only waltz, is framed by a quintessential Monkian sonority, a half-diminished seventh above a bagpipe fifth. This chord is “wrong” in conservatory terms, yet this improbable clash is exactly how Monk got the piano to sound like gongs and drums. The title is a rare example of Monk telling us directly about something fundamental to his ethos. All those who play this work without the “mistake” in the bass may as well call the song “Pretty Beauty” and be done with it.
Monk never said much, and toward the end he barely said anything. You can get a sense of his taciturnity on the bonus reel: Nellie talks more than her husband during the car ride, and Monk refuses to give normal, TV-friendly answers to Henri Renaud in an aborted interview. (The American who drinks and eats eggs quietly with Monk at the bar is Bob Jones, who worked for George Wein.)
One thing Monk did say was that he didn’t like imprecise versions of his music. The title track of Miles Davis’s album ‘Round Midnight features five great musicians in a classic performance, but they also use a non-Monk chord progression. Recently Columbia put out Davis playing “‘Round Midnight” at Newport in 1955. The composer is at the piano, and what a difference to hear Davis’s superb muted trumpet accompanied by the correct harmony! Comparing the two Davis versions is like seeing a masterful old painting before and after restoration.
This video contains the last extant solo recording of Monk’s biggest hit. Despite having performed “‘Round Midnight” thousands of times, Monk plays nothing tired or forced. It just exists, always new. Likewise, his standard set closer “Epistrophy” sounds completely fresh, outfitted in stride and a freely-phrased melody.
The rest of the music is just as good. The other standard (besides the aforementioned raucous “Nice Work If You Can Get It”) is “Don’t Blame Me,” rendered as sad-eyed cathouse piano replete with tremolos worthy of his musical forebear James P. Johnson. There’s even an intense trill at the end, a Fats Waller-ish device that also wraps up one of his most obdurate compositions, “Coming On the Hudson.” (What a treat to watch Monk’s hands play that insane bridge of “Hudson” several times. There’s no doubt about it: Those are the notes, and they make no sense — except that they do, somehow.)
In late 1969 Monk was playing at the top of his game, but his active career was drawing to a close. His muttered, “I don’t know what to play,” after “‘Round Midnight,” is sadly prescient, for he spent the last several years of his life in silence.
At the top of the video, we see candid footage that might offer a clue to his withdrawal. While Monk warms up on “Dreamland,” we see the French technicians smoking and talking loudly right next to the piano. Didn’t they know they were working in the service of immortality? It’s hard to imagine them acting this way if Samson François or Robert Casadesus was running through Chopin or Debussy. Perhaps Monk’s confident eccentricities were the first line of defense against those who didn’t see him for who he was, and perhaps he just tired of the fight.
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