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Crepuscule with Thelonious

By Published: February 14, 2008

He hears more than the math and science of the sound he hears the whole sound... He hears the COMPLETE STRUCTURE of the song not merely the notes and their sequences and intervals, but the COMPLETE ARCHITECTURE of the song.

Four false starts! I feel like the odd one out in a band led by Monk. The only one perhaps who cannot figure out or has not yet learnt one of Thelonious' new songs and we are about to start playing.

New music by Thelonious! Oh! Wish that were true!

It is November the twenty-second, nineteen sixty-three. There are to be no piano lessons for me today. The study is silent. Across the hallway, I can hear the radio. My aunt and music teacher returns from another room and announces that President Kennedy has been shot dead. Murdered by a "crazy animal," she says. I hear whispers of "shadowy group" and "gangsters." My aunt decides to cancel the music lesson. No talk of Beethoven. None about Bach, Mozart, Chopin or Liszt either. My aunt decides to mourn the death of President Kennedy. Eight and alone, I sit in the dark of my father's study. "Go do something with your time," my aunt says. I slide off the piano stool and walk over to the shelf where the vinyls are neatly and alphabetically stacked.

I put my finger to the spine of a record—a 78rpm and start to slide it across the 78's and then the 331/3's. I stop at C. The orange spine is attractive. I slide the record off the shelf. It is entitled The Genius of Charlie Christian. An amateur recording was made in 1940-41 at Minton's Playhouse. It is a bootleg. The cover color is a ghastly shade of orange, with a drawing of the guitarist—very old-fashioned. I don't care. I flip the record over and read from the top. "Featuring Thelonious Monk, piano; Kenny Clarke, drums; Nick Fenton, bass; Joe Guy, trumpet and Teddy Hill's band." The legend: "recorded at Minton's Playhouse in 1940." catches my eye.

I am fascinated by things that happened before I was born. I read on and as my father is not in the country I muster the courage to walk up to the gramophone and put the vinyl on the turntable.

The room is dark and lit by the eerie glow of a red lamp that sits on the family altar. My grandmother had bought this from the Fatima Shrine in Portugal. I pretend that I am at Minton's and place the tone arm of the gramophone on the vinyl. The hiss and crackle is deafening, but then the music comes on in the middle of a bar and I forget everything but the music.

The room is now smoky and has shape-shifted. I am at Minton's Playhouse. Monk is playing on a lousy piano, but he is self-absorbed. The tone is sharp and when I tune in everyone is swinging madly. Swing to Bop! Klook is dropping rhythmic bombs on the bass drum, firing rim shots on the snare. Monk, flat-fingered, intense, in wild and dissonant harmony. until it's time to revisit the melody with bright new statements in sound. Nick Finton is walking steady and Guy is flailing his trumpet, getting rid of the saliva. Then polishing the bell and his brow with a white handkerchief. Christian is playing fluid lines up and down the fret board, mixing it up. Never heard that before. But it is Monk who is drawing some attention as well. Someone says, Dizzy's here today but no one sees him. He loves what Monk is doing. He tells Bird. We got to get together with him.

Suddenly I am afraid that I will be discovered and will be thrown out of the place. I slink deeper into the corner, behind the piano. The song ends. A few of the people clap. Most are too busy getting drunk. Somebody counts off the next number. Kenny "Klook" Clarke or Joe Guy. Up on Teddy's Hill... Monk strikes the keys with a splayed hand. He plays a minor chord. And then a rapid run, which is surprisingly quick considering he does so with flattened fingers, taking his right hand over his left as he heralds the melody squeezing out five notes in a triplet! I have never heard anything like this before.

I practice Bach etudes for hours everyday. This should have been an affront but it is not. I am totally seduced by the sound. And the harmonics and the rhythmic intensity. Smitten by the sizzle and bop of Klook's accents on the ride. Christian returns from his wild ride and now it is Monk's time to soar—all too briefly he delivers a sermon with a new syntax and a new language is born of his invention. His fingers are chipping at the melody and a new harmonic design he builds a towering edifice in the new soundscape. Christian trades bars with Guy. Klook drops more bombs. Monk is all over the piece. It ends as suddenly as it began "Stompin At The Savoy!"

This is pure genius to me at eight. I want more. The air is thick and smoky. Glasses clinking. Monks feet are tapping out the next number. Christian vamps "Guy's Got To Go." Irreverent and bebopping. They bounce in and out of the groove and you cannot tell when they will return from the sonic expedition. But they do. Monk pulls hard on his cigarette. Klook and Finton don't waste anytime: "Lip's Flip." The new song breaks out of an old classic. The guys have pulled on the audience. Another tongue in cheek sonic escape from the brutality outside. Christian whips this melody around as they head into the back-straight. Monk hits a dissonant chord. splayed left hand and then a brilliant run as he signals Finton and Klook to bring the guys home.

Word of the genius spreads. New York is abuzz. Not only about Christian, but about Klook and Monk, as well. The media want a piece of the action. So do the cops, as usual. Monk is dancing to the sounds he hears in his head. He is beginning to see music as well. His vision is horizontal and vertical. He sees also the space in between the sounds. He sees all of the song... as completely as he hears it. Its history and geography. He hears more than the math and science of the sound—he hears the whole sound. He hears the COMPLETE STRUCTURE of the song, not merely the notes and their sequences and intervals, but the COMPLETE ARCHITECTURE of the song. No one on God's earth hears music this way. No one can compose and/or play music this way. Dizzy knows that. So does Bird. And Klook. Now Bud becomes an acolyte.

So also does Lucky Millinder in 1942. And Bean, who employs Monk from 1943 to 1945; then Dizzy who kicks it bop-style through a big band through 1946. But for most, this is too much! Genius is always scary.

The gig's up for now. Monk cracks a rare smile and he disappears into the darkness across 52nd Street.

Monk reinvents sonic architecture. The cops have other plans, but nothing can stop Monk. He records furiously. Shadow Wilson, Wilbur Ware, Pettiford and Blakey fatten the rhythm. Monk can do without everyone, really. He has perfected time. Alfred Lion takes a chance and launches Monk on the scene. Genius meets music. Monk is happy and unstoppable. He records furiously, then.

Monk gets up from his piano-stool. He walks about in a shambling sort of way. He is shuffling his feet. He is happy. He has plans. Back on the piano-stool, he strikes the ebony and ivory boldly. The sound flows magnificently, tumbling down and sideways. Melody dances. Harmony is another story and Monk tells it from the centre of his soul. He is dancing in ever-widening circles now. Dancing inside his head. And you can see it as his hands fly across the keyboard. On and on he goes, traversing continents dark and light. He ends the song as beautifully and surprisingly as he started it and writes down: "Well You Needn't." Then he rises from his piano stool again and dances down out of the room past the booth and down a darkened corridor. His shoulder bumps into a photo frame on a wall in the hallway: Alfred Lion on a fishing trip! The frame tilts to a jaunty angle. Monk looks at it. Thinks he'll straighten it, then decides against it and records the thought.

Notes flow. Gush in a torrent through his head. He dances in a circle until the music stops. Adjusts his hat. Then he lights up and begins to play. In the control booth they hear him and start to tweak the knobs. Blakey joins in. Idrees Suleiman. Monk holds up his hand and orders them to stop. Everyone is quiet. He says something, but only the musicians can hear. Then Blakey counts off. then rat-a-tat... swish... tish! Monk drops his hand on C, follows this with an augmented chord. then crosses right hand over left striking a couple of notes on the bass clef. "Monk's Mood."

This is the way to start it. No! This way. They stop. Monk explains his view. The group begins again. Tapes' rolling.

Monk is New York and New York is Monk. Spiritually and physically. He and his piano and Nellie and the musicians and the folks who dig him... and those who don't, but listen nevertheless... all live in the parallel universe. Here Monk has epiphany after epiphany. He writes out of a vision that is 3-dimensional... sound and vision. The work is incomparable. Thelonious... a mirror image designed and built from one conundrum after the other. "Ruby My Dear." Thick yet tender. "Well You Needn't..". two-fisted ironic... shame on those who did not comprehend follow the line of sight to learn of the new vision. "Epistrophy..". the duterocanonical, epiphonically-speaking gospel according to His Monasticity... the Law of Monk. Gravity is suspended from the sky and harmony loops like magic, connecting the past with the present and the future in a magnificent ring of energy. Then Monk makes time stand still as we breathe in, circulating that which we breathe... our lungs awash with the purifying fire and the perceptual light of Thelonious. Ah! Now Thelonious' voice: The quintessential epistle born of tradition and steeped in modernity for generations to come, trinkling down from Arrarat, or Sinai like the most tender, liquid cleansing fire. "Round About Midnight."

I am struck by the music. It is fat and round and comes from a perception never experienced before. I am drawn in just like I am to the Dutch artist, Maurits Cornelius Escher... who has a vision no less beguiling...

Escher's paintings... like the rhythmic certainty of Monk's pieces, have an intuitive sense of mathematics. And like Monk's beguiling harmonic schematics, Escher's schematics are just so. Like "Drawing Hands," in 1948, two hands, (Monk's running through any of his compositions?) are caught in their own embrace as they paint (Monk's would play) a prototypical schematic designs. Sky and Water where fish ascend from sea to sky, transmogrifying into birds once in the upper atmosphere of the landscape. "Ascending and Descending," a tantalizing 1960 lithograph where people exist and go about life on different planes all at the same time, just as he did in an earlier (1953) work, "Relativity." The mystifying work best describes Monk's vision of sonic architecture. I apply it to a number of his songs as I spin a Monk record. Any record. Here's why:

In the world of Relativity, there are actually three sources of gravity, each being orthogonal to the two others. Each inhabitant lives in one of the gravity wells, where normal physical laws apply. There are sixteen characters, spread between each gravity source. The apparent confusion of the lithograph print comes from the fact that the three gravity sources are depicted in the same space.

The structure has three stairways, and each stairway can be used by people who belong to two different gravitational sources. This creates interesting phenomena, such as in the top stairway, where two inhabitants use the same stairway in the same direction and on the same side, but each using a different face of each step; thus, one descends the stairway as the other climbs it, even while moving in the same direction nearly side-by-side. In the other stairways, inhabitants are depicted as climbing the stairways upside-down, but based on their own gravity source, they are climbing normally. The Bal-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are.

Listening to his music again, and again. I find myself drawing a new chronological line, which stretches from Bunk (Johnson) to (Thelonious) Monk and back. I do not plan this poem. It just happens:

The crickets rubbing their hindquarters

The piano is percussion

Heartbeat to fingertip crashing

Cascading note after note... after

Head throbbing note... It's heavy... sweet and lovely

Black licks from New York New York

To Basin Street... and before that

Perhaps Nigeria to North Carolina

Monk's ebony and ivory... ascending... decending

Mice pursing their lips in the dark

A dog is not amused... Not amused at all

A stray cat, recently jilted, with the blues

Night wind, restless from lack of sleep

Bopping at Minton's... Its like rapid eye movements

Hungry as hell... Well you needn't come

Do nothing... stand and watch

The fat cloud slipping past the lazy moon

Kitchen sink and faucet in terminal debate

White silk sheets revolting against black... love makers

TV left on when there's nothing to report... but hate

Arterial scissors clipping the umbilicus... to Africa

Wail of Buddy's horn in Basin Street

Bunk playing and jiving... He's jitterbugging... man

On a badly tuned upright... One hot steamy night

Thelonious Monk and Bunk... One fat lick

'Round midnight. So we shall be traversing

Continents until we are finally free

Back to Africa... Garden of the soul

Back to Africa... Back

Sand slipping away as the tide goes out

Every leaf on every tree dancing in the wind

Topsoil and saplings lost to earth... Forever.

Armies of ants furiously shoring up for winter

Fish are swimming upstream to mate vigorously

Ducks coming out of hiding... only to die

The sun's cracking open the sky at dawn

But the same shit's going down

So back to Africa... Back to the Garden of the Soul

Back to Africa ... From Bunk to Monk back now!

Bird and Dizzy get together for the last time. Monk is there. It is June 1950, Granz puts the whole gig together. All Birdsongs. But Monk slants them ever so slightly and gives them a stamp they never would have had without his harmonics. They now also have a touch of humor. "Bloomdido." "Mohawk." "Relaxin' With Lee." "An Oscar for Treadwell," "Leap Frog" and "My Melancholy Baby." Bird asks to play with Monk. He gets his wish. The tracks are laid down. They are spectacular. Bird groans with pleasure sometimes, as does Russell and Buddy Rich. A piece of history.

Orin Keepnews blows by and leaps in. He is riveted by Monk. He brings him on board and brings in Mulligan to play with Monk. This is magic. The legend of Thelonious Monk begins to spread across the country. Now he records with Trane and Sonny Rollins, Ernie Henry. Miles and Clark Terry. Monk is the Holy Grail. Monk delivers a dissertation on his schematics. It is not about the math and pitch of notes. It is about the sound and tonal quality of the music. He is faithful to the melody, but the harmonic scheme is his own.

Let's do a date with Ellington charts, Monk. Classic Ellington charts. Reverence and passion and one hundred and eighty degree in harmonic twists and turns. and then some when Monk and Pettiford and Blakey get together and drop six standards on tale for Fantasy.

Monk remains faithful to the melody in a traditional way. But his harmonic system is very personal. In fact he abandons the original harmony and substitutes it with his own structure, while continuing to refer back to the melody. His harmonic approach has to do with the ingenious sense of voicing chords in a dramatic dissonant way, casting it in broad relief because of his precise and wonderful sense of rhythm.

Monk is all music: Not part piano and part music. He is all piano AND all music. Monk and Trane build a lasting relationship. His cabaret card restored in 1957 he lands a date at the Five Spot and Coltrane says he is attending the Monk School of Music.

Monk opens Trane's mind at the Five Spot. Trane returns the favor at Carnegie Hall. It is the night of the twenty ninth, nineteen fifty seven. Monk is majestic. There has not been a venue so large in a long time, nor a piano so beautifully in tune. Monk soars into the stratosphere! Trane, now almost fully grown follows suit. In brooding conversation, they discuss Monk's Dream, swinging gently as Monk travels across the keyboard like he is stroking the body of his beloved. They don't stop here. Monk is warm now, and launches into "Evidence," then "Crepuscule" with Nellie that maddeningly up and down harmonic wonder that seems to search but never find its harmonic centre. and just when you think that it does, Monk changes the chord. The group survives. and launch into "Nutty" and "Epistrophy." Later that night, they begin with "Bye-Ya," Monk leads then into "Sweet and Lovely," one of a handful of standards that Monk pulls out from his repertoire. Then "Blue Monk" and "Epistrophy" to close the set. And the historic concert.

It is always edifying to be with Trane and trade riffs and solos. Just as it is also good: all the times he is with Rollins and Johnny Griffin; Pettiford and Clarke. They want to make him an institution suddenly. Everyone is taking notice. One of them is Hall Overton. He scores Monks music for orchestra and Orin Keepnews makes a date at the Town Hall. Hmmm. Interesting new textures emerge. A new twist to his monastic outness and the music of course. This is serious. Why should it be? Monk appears out of it although the music is a big success. Overton says: "He has a very selective approach to sound. In a sense, he abstracts from the fuller type of jazz harmony. It isn't that he doesn't know the full harmony—he's played it for me but he does know those particular sounds he wants and so his harmony is lean. Incidentally there is one thing he does that may or may not be conscious, but that he does along with the spaces he leaves in his chords. He plays with flat fingers; his fingers are splayed out, not curved into the keyboard and as a result, he can resist the temptation to play full chords.

"As a whole, Monk is an excellent example of a non-conformist in a field that's very cliquish and conformist despite the legend that every jazzman is an individualist. Monk always stuck to his own way, and it's finally paying off."

Monk is forty now. Technique: "Flat fingers." Who the hell cares, I don't! The music is important. Listen to what it is trying to say. Oh well! Time to move on, I guess. He moves from bed to piano and back to bed. Or he might go over to Nica's. Nothing much to say. So listen to the music.

At Columbia in to 60s, Monk is a god. The world opens up to him and he records and performs with abandon. He had a new quartet and he forms the lasting relationship with Charlie Rouse. He travels to Europe, to Japan. The Monastic Legend spreads far and wide. He wows hundreds wherever he goes. Oliver Nelson repeats the Big Band readings of Monk's charts. The ever-present Teo Macero. But Nelson does a great job and Monk is happy.

You would think that people would read him the way he wants to be read. for the moment, of the moment. After all, who cares where jazz is headed. It could be going to hell, for all I care. Listen to the music. The music is important. Nothing else matters but the contribution of the music.

People ask what about Trane? Well, what about Trane? He's an important musician and he's going places, I suppose. Change the world and all that. Who cares. Now there's a working Quartet. All ears on Rouse. They compare his work to Trane and Griffin and. Well what next? Charlie Rouse is to Monk what Strayhorn is to Duke and Dannie Richmond is to Mingus and so on and so forth. None of the others had a dry, muscular tone. None of the others read Monk charts like Monk wanted them to be read. None of them delivered day in and day out and there is something to be said when you come to the music each day and you too can read the angular notes and play the angular chords and just breathe in the spaces between. Rouse reads Monk charts the way Monk likes them to be. Sometimes just a hand signal is all he needs. So that's just the way it is and the way it will be.

Monk to quartet: Let's funk up the repertoire. And here are some things blue some things new. "Green Chimneys," for instance. "Ugly Beauty" and "Boo Boo's Birthday." AND Monk is heard around the world. Legend has it he is otherwise close to taking a vow of silence, before his time.

Monk to guy in elevator: Nice to meet you Mr. Macero. Then to self on the way out of the building: This piano sounds terrible. It's out of tune. But the music is mine.

Monk walks out. He dances to the rhythm of "'Round Midnight" as he disappears across the plaza and into the darkness. Save Nellie and the children. No one else sees him again, except perhaps 'Nica. No one. Not for a long time. Generations mourn for Monk—and, with the exception of the musicians—none with so much as an iota of remorse.

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