Robin D.G. Kelley on Thelonious Monk: The Man, the Myth, the Music
AAJ: Which are some of your favorite Monk recordings, and why?
RK: Well, I love everything by Monk. I think of Monk's music as a whole body of work. But I'm partial to some of the songs he recorded less frequently, like "Brilliant Corners," for example, or "Gallop's Gallop." These were intricate songs that melodically were unlike anything anyone else was doing. They defy categories. I love those pieces. I also love "Introspection." Harmonically, it's one of those really interesting songs where there's no tonal center. It's incredibly free, and yet there's a clear path he's taking melodically. On the other hand, I also love his interpretations of standards. It's hard not to laugh out loud when you listen to him playing "Nice Work If You Can Get It" or "Darn that Dream." The romanticism is still there, but there's a certain humor as well. One of the great recordings is where he was backing vocalist Kenny "Pancho" Hagood on "I Should Care," with Milt Jackson, where what they do behind the singer is out of this world. So those are some highlights for me, but it's hard to say, because I love everything by Monk.
AAJ: The element of fun, of play, was evident not only in his music, but in every aspect of his life, judging from your book.
AAJ: Monk often had trouble getting the musicians together and having a good situation to make recordings. Which of his recordings would you say were the best as albums, where everything came together?
RK: That's almost impossible to answer, because there were times when the most difficult conditions came together really well. Brilliant Corners is an example. It was saved in many ways by Orrin Keepnews, who edited several different takes. So here you have a session in which everyone who played on it said it was a disaster! And yet the end result is spectacular. On the other hand, when he got his quartet together, the basic quartet with Charlie Rouse, with Ben Riley or Frankie Dunlop on drums, some of those recordings are really tight and well done. They may not be as exciting as Monk playing at the Five Spot with Johnny Griffin, where Griffin is still learning the music. That to me may be more exciting than the quartet playing yet another version of "Blue Monk," let's say five years later. So to me, sometimes when things are not perfect, that's when Monk produces some of the most beautiful music.
I will say this, though. There are songs everyone sleeps on. Monk in his quartet with Charlie Rouse, Larry Gales, and Ben Riley, they do Duke Ellington's "I Didn't Know About You," on the Straight, No Chaser LP, it's very uncharacteristic, but it's just perfect! What Charlie Rouse is doing, and everyone in the band is doing is absolutely stunning. But the critics never talk about that recording. Live at the It Club is my favorite live recording with Monk's quartet. Not to say that the Five Spot sessions aren't great, but in Live at the It Club, the whole band is on fire. That's from a time when Monk was struggling with his mental health, and things were not going so well overall, but that recording is just fantastic!
AAJ: You've made me aware that for some jazz recordings, the virtue is their excitement, and for others it is the perfection or in exceptional cases, the innovation.
AAJ: And any or all of those elements can make for a memorable recording. Now, the next question was actually stimulated by a lecture that Lewis Porter gave in Philadelphia on Clifford Brown. Porter played several different recordings that Brown had made of the song "Cherokee" and showed how the latter's playing matured over the time between the first and last versions. Now with Monk, it's hard for me to tell if his music developed significantly over time, or whether, once he got his groove, he pretty much stayed on the same wavelength through most of his career. Do you have your own take on that?
RK:That's an excellent question, one of the best questions anyone has ever asked me. It may seem strange, but I'm going to say that both are true. Early on, meaning the 1940s, on the Blue Note recordings, he developed an aesthetic for both his compositions and his improvisations, and he pretty much stuck to it through the end. On the other hand, I do think there is a development in his approach that has to do with tempo and the number of notes he would play. If you listen to the Blue Note recordings, as much as I argue that he is not a bebop player as such, that although he contributed to bebop, he really had his own unique approach, he plays a lot of notes, and although the 78 rpm format is short, they're full. Over time, especially later in life, by the end of the '60s, he likes slower tempos, he ends up playing longer solos, partly because of the 33 rpm LP format, but also because he had more to say, and he also is more aware of economy and space. There's less space in those early recordings than there is when we get into the '50s and '60s.
The other thing that happens is that while he did play stride piano in the '40s, he becomes more wedded to stride piano, returning to those old fashioned yet still modern techniques that he grew up playing. My argument is that what he's trying to do is to distinguish himself from the jazz avant-garde. And here is one of the strange ironies. Here's a man whose music helps usher in what becomes free jazz, I mean, Monk is one of their heroes. On the other hand, he didn't like what they were doing. And so he is trying to remind listeners, this is what it means to swing. This is where I come from. I'm not Ornette Coleman, I'm Thelonious Monk. So he records more solo pieces, more solo LPs. It's not producers asking him to do it; he wants to do it. He wants more solo pieces. He wants to slow the tempos down. He wants to remind listeners of those great pianists of the past.
AAJ: Monk was profoundly steeped in tradition. And also, his sense of rhythm was the greatest in the history of jazz. He did his own flip with the rhythm. Paul Desmond said, "Monk plays at an angle. And it's the right angle." I imagine he got that angle from the stride pianists but made it uniquely his own.
RK:That's very astute, because most critics and commentators who were contemporaries of Monk talked about his harmony. But it's his rhythm which distinguished him from so many other players. And if you read the interviews of those who performed with Monk, most of what they learned from him wasn't about harmony, but about rhythm. He had a way of swinging that was unique. And he never lost his place rhythmically. He was always right there.
AAJ: He could even come back to the piano after going off stage, and just hit the piano right on cue.
RK:Exactly. Even before he sat down, he hit that note!