Something was happening down on the lower East Side of Manhattan, down south of 14th Street way down in the rusty Bowery as the summer of 1957 was beginning. News of it spread out through the jazz community like the subterranean rumble of the subways underneath the clubs up on 52nd Street.
Monk was back.
After more than six years holed up in his Harlem apartment, his grand piano crammed into a corner of his kitchen, Nellie cooking and the kids all climbing under and around him like house cats, the radio blasting hillbilly music, and Monk sitting there composing as if he were alone in a garret somewhere, rocking gently back and forth on the piano benchafter six years in oblivion when he could not work in New York City because the police had pulled his cabaret card for possession of some infinitesimal amount of marijuanaMonk was back. (Technically, the weed wasn't even Monk's, it reportedly belonged to his sad-eyed, little friend with the crazy smile and the dancing hands, the other Piano Player, Bud Powell.)
During those six years in exile, Theolonius Monk refused to work outside New York City or to go into the recording studio, for reasons he never seemed interested in articulating. Now, after six years during which New York's music fans couldn'tweren't allowedto hear the music of Theolonius Sphere Monkhe was suddenly back and playing at a little street level sliver of a club called the Five Spot Cafe in The Bowery just across from the gothic shadow of Cooper Union. Not uptown in the hip, bebop temples on Swing Street, or at Birdland or the Onyx or The Three Deuces; and not over in the West Village's beatnik "art scene at the Village Vanguard or the Cafe Bohemia. Monk was in The Bowery, "Bum Land, way over east in one of New York's many small disaster zones where people crash land and burn in desolate alleys and in cat piss-smelling bars. It was a neighborhood held together by poverty and addictions, where you could set a mattress on fire and instead of the fire department showing up, people would gather around it to keep warm all night. The bars down here are narrow, one-way coffin shaped joints. The rents predictably low, low enough that the two Tramini brothers, jazz fans since they were kids in Brooklyn, could afford to put the money they saved on rent into talent. And there was no question, Monk had that.
Theolonius Sphere Monksome legends say he'd added that middle name himself back in the '40's when he was first coming up in bebop, reportedly "to show that he wasn't square as if anyone with ears could possibly mistake his music for anything but music from another very hip planet. Theolonius was back playing again at the Five Spot Cafe.
Someone somewhere had pulled the right string, made the right phone call, did what had to be done within the mysterious workings of the NYPD of the time and gotten Theolonius's cabaret card back for him. It was a gift to the City. People were curious to see who Monk would have with him coming back after a half-dozen years in musical exile. Just about everybody wanted to play with him. Typically, Monk made some eccentric choices, people like Shadow Wilson on drums. Wilbur Ware on bass. And the new guy, the new tenor player who'd been with Miles. The "sheets of sound guy. Coltrane. John Coltrane, who after playing with Monk for a few historic weeks, observed with his typically simple precision: "He is a musical architect of the highest order.
I had never seen Monk before, not even pictures of him, and the only time I'd heard him play was on that album with Miles. The famous one in the early '50's where little upstart Miles Davis in his strangled voice told the giant Monk, who spoke mostly in caveman-like single syllable words, told Theolonius Monk to lay out during his solo on "The Man I Love.
Young Miles with his intense blue-flame of sound and his fuck-you attitude, in his beautifully tailored Ivy League suit telling big, hulking Monk towering over him in his snap brim pork pie hat, to "lay out? It's a wonder Monk didn't dinch Miles out like a cigarette butt. But instead of taking the elegantly diminutive Mr. Davis apart, Monk acted like a scolded little kid, whining almost, "Why can't I play, man, everybody else is playing? Genuinely hurt that Miles just wanted bass and drums underneath his solo. (Miles of course, was concerned that Monk's comping would be too interesting and would distract from what he was doing.) And then Miles telling Rudy Van Gelder, "Rudy, leave this on the recordall of it. Which he did.