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All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource

Genius Guide to Jazz

The Loneliest Monk

By Published: August 16, 2005

Denied his cabaret card which deprived Monk of his ability to perform in New York nightclubs for six years, he dedicated himself to the perfection of his music. It was during this time that his unique compositional style began to coalesce into the definitive sound that is today indelibly associated with him. Emerging from his exile in 1957 to form a group with John Coltrane, Shadow Wilson, and Wilbur Ware (whose brand of cookware, Wllburware, was sold at informal houseparties in the fifties, inspiring another burgeoning entrepreneur, Earl Tupper), Monk began the first of several stretches at the famed Five Spot Cafe©.

It was during the Sixties that Monk began to merit serious notice both here and abroad. Tours of Europe and Asia merited him widespread critical notice and international acclaim, while a tour of Knott's Berry Farm merited him a souvenir T-shirt and a corn dog. Monk's intricate arrangements and peculiar splay-fingered piano style, not to mention his eccentric personality and often puzzling behavior, attracted popular attention beyond strictly jazz-oriented circles.

Speaking of which.

Monk remains to this day perhaps the most unusual figure in the history of jazz, with the possible exception of myself. He was introverted to the point of sometimes communicating only with semaphore flags, given to wearing odd hats and sometimes getting up in the middle of solos to dance as though in a state of ecstasy. It has been said of Monk (by me, just now) that his stature among the recognized giants of jazz would have been even greater had he possessed a more accessible personality.


It may also be said of Monk (also by me, more recently) that it was as much his extremely demanding compositions and unconventional musical ideas, which were as formidable to listen to as they were to play, as it was his personality that contributed to his strangely underrated status among his contemporaries. Monk predated the Free School's blissful disregard for the listener, not caring if his sometimes jangling, discordant notes and unpredictable chord changes didn't exactly lay easy on the ear. Moreso than any artist before him, Monk didn't aim to accommodate popular sensibilities. Nor was he merely a contrarian, doing the unexpected simply because it was unexpected. Monk was at all times true to his internal voice, and expanded the acceptable in modern music as much as Debussy's use of the dissonant seventh expanded the acceptable during the Romantic period. And I'll fight any man who says different.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch.

By the early seventies Monk was among the elder statesmen of jazz, a role ill-suited to his increasingly reclusive personality. Touring with the Giants of Jazz (average height, 6'7") from 1971-72, he continued infrequent appearances until the mid-seventies. Finally falling into complete seclusion as a result of illness, both physical and mental, Monk finally passed away in 1982 at the home of jazz benefactress the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter (which may well be one of the most fun-to-say names I have ever encountered in my extensive studies of jazz, and one that brings a swift end to even the most evenly-matched Scrabble contest). Interestingly enough, Charlie Parker also passed away at the residence of Baroness de Koenigswarter. In fact, a conspicuous number of the greats of jazz died before the Baroness passed away in 1990. Coincidence? I will leave that to posterity to decide. And to the Weehawken, New Jersey, police, who are still actively investigating.

Ultimately, the legacy of Thelonious Monk is one of a genius incongruent with his age. Like television pioneer Ernie Kovacs, who was 60 years ahead of his time 50 years ago, we may still not have fully come to appreciate the body of work Monk left behind. In an age when our music is mostly either deliberately obtuse beyond reason or accessible to the point of pandering, coming to terms with music that will not compromise or explain itself and yet has no interest in hollow revolution for revolution's sake is still just as challenging as it was in Monk's day. And so is the average redhead. But listen to Bemsha Swing, then take a look at Nicole Kidman, and I think you'll agree that they're both worth the effort.

That pretty much does it for this month, kids. Till next month, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.

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