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Monkadelphia: All Monk, All the Time

By Published: March 16, 2010
Monk's Contribution to the Jazz Legacy

Monkadelphia / Micah JonesAAJ: Now, some critics consider Monk to have been an idiosyncratic musician, neither a part of the mainstream nor the avant-garde. So, I'd like to know your thoughts about Monk's contribution to the overall development of modern jazz.

JM: As I said earlier, I don't know where that idea of Monk being a founder of bebop came from. His music is not bebop. Just the fact that he keeps talkin' about don't pay any attention to the chord changes. Just play around the melody. I mean, that was much more in tune with the avant-garde thing that followed Monk. I mean, any bebop tune, you can completely ignore the head and just solo over the chord changes, but with Monk, you have to think over the tune.

TL: Even if you're not playing it.

JM: You don't have to play the tune, but you have to keep that form in mind. I mean, he's got some tunes that are just rhythm changes, and a couple of blues, but mostly he's got these weird forms. And so mostly, he's some kind of thing unto himself.

TL: Right, he did come up in the bebop era, but he wasn't doing what the other bebop players like Bird and Dizzy were doing.

TM: Tell me if I'm right, but I always put Duke Ellington there, and I always think about Andrew Hill
Andrew Hill
Andrew Hill
1937 - 2007
and Randy Weston
Randy Weston
Randy Weston
, and those guys were on the side. I never put Monk on the path of bebop, I moved him over. And that tree with Monk doesn't go far.

JM: One time, we were going to do a tribute concert to Duke Ellington, and on the way over, I put on the Duke Ellington and John Coltrane recording, and boy, Monk and Duke, they sure are sharin' something.

TL: As a matter of fact, one time I heard a version of "Caravan" on the radio, and I was sure it was Monk, but it turned out to be Duke. And Monk often credited Duke for inspiring him.

JM: And Mingus, too.

AAJ: Monk played with Duke once at Newport.

TL: Yeah, a lot of the clanging dissonances like the intervals of minor sevenths and minor seconds that Monk used, Duke had already done. And like Monk, Duke came out of stride piano. On the whole, I would say that Monk was idiosyncratic, in that it wasn't everyday use of the language. Now, you could argue that his tune, "Skippy," is sort of a bebop head, and it's totally linear, but it's still quirky. You could say that it's a quintessential example of someone using bebop language in a totally idiosyncratic way.

AAJ: You all seem to agree that he was indeed outside of the bebop development, so in that case, what did he contribute to jazz? Occasionally, you get a genius who yet stands apart from the crowd and is a unique thing unto himself.

TL: He contributed many things with rhythmic displacements, playing in the cracks of the beat against the rhythm section.

TM: I got from that, if the rhythm's happening, you could almost do whatever you want.

JM: You know, for my whole life as a drummer, I've heard that my job is to make the band sound good. Yet Monk once said to saxophonist Steve Lacy
Steve Lacy
Steve Lacy
1934 - 2004
sax, soprano
, "Don't forget—always make the drummer sound good." He's saying that to the horn player, and I'm thinking, "Boy! I really like Monk more than ever!" [Laughter.]

TM: Another contribution he made is that, I'm thinking in bebop there's no room for the whole tone scale. And then there's Monk, and he's just kind of all over the place. And I just never saw whole tone scales in bebop tunes quite like that.

TL: I've heard whole tone scales used in bebop, but Monk did make a special use of it.

TM: I always felt it was awkward to play whole tone scales on bebop tunes, but you do it on Monk tunes, and it just fits right in.

AAJ: Did Monk have his own harmonic understanding?

TL: Well, yeah, his voicings. We always joke that he wouldn't win the competition named after him. If you think of vocalists, saxophones, and guitars, where you can bend notes, his use of a minor second on top of a chord, that's sort of the piano's way of bending notes, so in his case it was probably less of a dissonance than his way of trying to get to the blue note inbetween.

JM: Who was it who said that Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
could take a beat up old upright piano, and make it sound like a nine foot Steinway grand? Well, Monk could take a nine foot Steinway and make it sound like an out-of-tune beat up old upright! [Laughter.]

Tony Micelli / Philly 5AAJ: All criticisms of Monk's technique aside, he had strong echoes of stride piano and the sounds they made on those old uprights. Clint Eastwood made a wonderful documentary on the development of jazz piano styles, including Ray Charles
Ray Charles
Ray Charles
1930 - 2004
, who was influenced by those old-timers.

JM: I wasn't trying to diss Monk, but those minor second sounds reflected those earlier styles.

TL: In other words, it has an earthy, guttural sound as opposed to a refined sound.

TM: The point is that Monk is a genius, and he's great, but you can't apply the same standard that you would apply to these other guys. What makes him great is that he's unique; you can't compare him to the others.

TL: Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
is a great Monk interpreter, but you can't compare him to Monk. That's the beauty of Monk's tunes—you can actually play them the opposite way to the way he played them, and they still work well.

AAJ: You're saying that once you get past the apparent idiosyncrasies, there's something universal about Monk.

TL: He played the standard, "I Should Care" with his clanginess, and it would be beautiful. Yet Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
could play Monk's "Round Midnight" and make it sound pretty instead of guttural. And it's just as valid.

AAJ: Around the time of Monk, there were a bunch of innovators around, like Bud Powell
Bud Powell
Bud Powell
1924 - 1966
, Coltrane, Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
1928 - 1964
. And they were all doing new things in varying degrees outside of the mainstream. So if you include Monk in that list, then you've got to ask how you could compare their respective contributions to jazz. In other words, what do we have today that was the legacy of each of them? My point is that it's a little more difficult to formulate the lasting contributions of some than of others.

TM: Liberties! I mean Monk's playin' all this new stuff. Like the first time Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was performed, everybody hated it. Eventually, everybody borrows from Stravinsky—the film composers take the end of Firebird. So here's Monk doing his thing, and at the time only a few people dig it, and then all of a sudden it's accepted, and so we can do more things now. I mean, all those guys you mentioned expanded the language, right?

TL: Bud Powell
Bud Powell
Bud Powell
1924 - 1966
was into bebop, but not quite typical. Monk and Powell admired each other, and they used their left hands with a guttural "drum" approach in similar ways not typical of bebop.

AAJ: Do you think Monk's music evolved over time, or stayed pretty much the same after the 1940s?

TM: Actually, I would say, no! It was ahead of its time from the beginning.

TL: Ben Shachter [saxophonist] has a good point about that. He teaches a course at Temple called "Styles and Analysis." One semester is Monk; another it's Coltrane, and he seems to make the point that Monk appeared to arrive on the scene almost fully formed, whereas Trane constantly re-invented himself, questioned what he was doing.

JM: Yeah, I agree with that.

TL: I'm sure Monk got better at what he did and refined it in his own way. But I wouldn't say he arrived at a drastically different aesthetic from where he began. Although people often talk about his space and his spareness, yet there are many recorded examples where he's playing at almost Tatum-eque speed. So you can't even stereotype that.

Thelonious MonkJM: On the Coltrane/Monk recording, he's playin' a lot of piano.

AAJ: I wanted to ask Tom specifically about Monk's piano playing. Some people, for example Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein
1918 - 1990
, who felt Monk was a genius, didn't think much of him as a pianist.

TL: In my opinion, he was a great pianist. He understood the sympathetic vibrations of the piano. Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
talks about that in a recent article. Monk knew things about the pedals, and the spacings of chords that triggered overtones in certain ways.

TM: Yeah, but could he have blown some Bach fugues off there?

TL: I don't know, and I probably don't care, but it's interesting that in Kelley's biography, he relates that Monk is playing some Chopin, and his sister tells him—that's adagio, that's supposed to be slow, and he says, "Yeah, but I wanna play it real fast." [Laughter] So, it's entirely possible he was a very good pianist. But I don't look at pianists as pianists. I look at whether or not they're musicians as such. The instrument is simply the means to the music, and in that respect, Monk is probably one of the greatest pianists.

AAJ: But playing an instrument, you have to master certain skills.

TL: Yes and no.

AAJ: When Monk was young, he was very talented on piano. Kelley notes that he had a teacher from Julliard who was himself a concert pianist, and said that in a few months, young Thelonious had already gone beyond what he was teaching.

TL: It depends on how you look at an instrument. If we're brainwashed by Eurocentric ideas about what it means to play an instrument—and I'm not putting down any of that music—I'm just saying there are diverse ways to play the same instrument.

TM: Yeah, but I like putting musicians in those different bags just to see what happens. Like, could Monk do this or that on the piano, just for information's sake. What is he about, and what is he not about?

AAJ: Tom has a really good point about the influence of Eurocentric concepts of music and musicians on our thinking about competence. One of Monk's achievements was to break through the Eurocentric tendency wherein jazz had lost some of its naturalism and roots. But getting back to the instrument itself, Tom, would you use Monk as a role model for teaching piano?

TL: OK, technically I would not want most students, unless they showed early signs of genius, I would not want them to emulate his physical way of playing piano, because they'd wind up with carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis. But for Monk, we're very grateful that he wasn't trained traditionally, because he might never have come up with what he did.

AAJ: But he did wild things like play with his elbows. Isn't that just a stunt?

TL: No, no. He's playing clusters. It's a sound.

AAJ: Do you play with your elbows?

TL: Sure, sometimes. It's just another way to get a sound.

AAJ: I don't know if [Vladimir] Horowitz would've played with his elbows.

TL: Well, if he would've been playing [classical composer Iannis] Xenakis, he would have.

Thelonious MonkAAJ: To change the topic, what do you think of Monk's choice of sidemen over the years. Like, some people think Charlie Rouse was a great choice, while others point to his shortcomings. Sonny Rollins, as always, was stunning when he worked with Monk. Do you think Monk chose good musicians to work with?

JM: Oh, absolutely. He was always after the best people that he felt would have some instinctive grasp of his music.

AAJ: If you listen to his recordings, do you think that they did grasp his intent?

JM: Absolutely. Rouse, and Frankie Dunlop, those guys were with him the longest. I know that Rouse said that on record dates you had to be on top all the time, because Monk will use the first or second take. So if you blow it, your mistake is gonna be on this record for eternity. Monk limited his repertoire to 10 or 12 songs in the later years, but his solos are always completely original.

AAJ: Which drummers did well with him?

JM: Shadow Wilson sounds great with him. Now, according to Kelley, he had drug problems, but you couldn't tell from those recordings.

TL: Shadow Wilson
Shadow Wilson
, Max Roach,Art Blakey
Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
. Who could be better?

AAJ: Jim, it goes without saying that Monk's rhythms are slightly off center. So do you as a drummer, go for those rhythms, or do you just play straight-ahead?

JM: I'm trying to make sounds that sound good with what these guys are doing. The best times I've had playing are with a handful of bands, and Monkadelphia is one of them, where you can have the tune running in your head, and then the rest of it is like you're in a playground. There's a way to be so inside what the group is doing that you naturally make the right choices.

TM: I always think of Jim as a guy who's really rhythmic. So there's always this undercurrent that I can play to. Micah Jones is more the guy who's layin' it down on bass.

JM: But he's playin' some serious counterpoint stuff a lot.

TL: Part of it is the era in which the music is played. When Monk was recording, the drums couldn't be doing what Monk was doing, or he himself wouldn't have been able to do it! But these days, when Jim plays, the sense of the beat is always there even though he's busy doing other stuff.

AAJ: Tom, do you try to hold back on the beat the way Monk did?

TL: I don't tend to do that. I kind of favor on top. On certain tempos, I may try to mix it up.

JM: That's where we're all simpatico as a group, because we all tend to play on the front side of the beat.

TL: And that would be completely different from Monk. But anyone of us at a given moment might play behind the beat.

Thelonious MonkJM: But that's for effect. Rhythm is like when you throw a rock into the water and get those concentric circles, that's like a metronome, and that's a given. But you can be on either side of it.

TL: Most of what we do is instinctual. We play in the moment.

AAJ: What you're saying is that, above and beyond this basic beat, there's a lot of elbow room in the way you guys use rhythm.

JM: If you hear Monk, no matter who's performing it, you know it's a Monk tune. Because not only his piano playing but his compositions were unique. Same with Wayne Shorter—no matter who plays one of his tunes, you know it's him. And the same with Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker
Michael Brecker
1949 - 2007
sax, tenor
. So the first time I heard Monk's tune "Evidence," I knew it was a Monk tune. His fingerprints are all over it.

TM: And a Monk tune will sometimes dictate playing looser also. As soon as a Monk tune comes up, musicians start playing differently.

TL: But like Kenny Werner
Kenny Werner
Kenny Werner
one time played "Trinkle Tinkle" and somehow made it sound more like Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
than Monk. Stylistically, as a player, you can choose to acknowledge or not acknowledge "Monk-isms." For example, his tune, "Ugly Beauty," even the title should dictate a certain kind of guttural beauty as opposed to pristine beauty, yet half the time when I play it, I'm lulled into a "pretty" mode instead of the guttural.

AAJ: Monk had a lot of that sensitive beauty—people often don't realize that side of him.

JM: "Reflections" is one of the best tunes ever.

AAJ: The same with "Ruby My Dear" and "Round Midnight." And he also loved to do other composer's ballads. Did anyone do a head count of Monk's own compositions?

TL: It used to be 68. Lately, it's more like 72 or 73.

JM: We've played all of them at least once.

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