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Monkadelphia: All Monk, All the Time

By Published: March 16, 2010
Thelonious Monk's Unique Persona

AAJ: Let's talk about Monk's persona. He was a very singular personality. In fact, the subtitle of Kelley's biography refers to him as "An American Original." As musicians, you meet your cohorts all the time and encounter all sizes and types. Now, you could almost have two different pictures of Monk. On the one hand, he was a sincere, caring, straight ahead, intelligent man, had a large circle of friends and family who adored him. On the other hand, he could be easily described as eccentric, mentally ill, addicted, unreliable, erratic, and impulsive. All this is legend and story by now. Now, as Monkadelphia, you must consider him to be a hero. So what do make of this complex human being to whose music you are dedicated?

Monkadelphia / Chris Farr
JM: What I thought was great about Robin Kelley's biography is that he covers both sides, and after reading it, the examples of Monk's behavior are not that extreme. I mean, he reminds me of many people I've known. He's a great musician. That's it. And whatever comes wrapped up with that package is what you get.

TM: What did you think of his dancing on the stage and all that?

JM: He said he did that so he could hear the band better, and some musicians said he was giving them directions. It's like people criticize Miles Davis for turning his back on the audience, while actually when he was doing that he could listen better to his band. So there are always several different interpretations for this stuff.

TM: I watched Miles from back stage when he was doing that. There are people you have to give license to. If Monk was spinning around on stage, I say, OK, so what.

JM: It's like Keith Jarrett with his vocalisms, gyrating, and all that.

TM: I have a hard time with that, it's distracting. See, that's the point. There's a current musician who's very eccentric, and someone told me it's a stage act. If you're on stage, you do things to get attention.

JM: In the Monk biography, he quotes Monk as saying, "Sometimes it's to your benefit for people to think you're crazy."

TM: I was watching a group on YouTube the other night, and this guy jumps up in the air for the last chord, which is a major triad. And I'm thinking, "No. Major triads don't usually require jumps in the air at the end of a tune. [Laughter.] Then, sometimes I wonder about myself, do I do dumb stuff? Like at times I smack my lips when I'm playing. And I can hear it on some of my recordings, and it kind of bugs me. Also I wonder whether Monk really was doing theatrics. I was married to an actress, and she encouraged me to use theatrics when I play.

TL: Maybe Monk was just having fun. And also, when he sat out a couple of choruses, he'd be listening and maybe spontaneously strolling around.

AAJ: There were times when he used that dance as a gimmick, because one time he did it in a revolving door, and another time in a filmed scene at an airport.

TL: Also, Monk had bipolar disorder, and maybe he did funny things during a manic episode, but at the same time, when he was feeling good, he had a very sardonic sense of humor.

TM: The other thing is that he used street drugs, and he also had bad prescriptions, and maybe that had something to do with it.

AAJ: Just as an aside, do you think there's less drug abuse among the jazz players today than there was then?

TL: Yes, I think so. It's gotten better.

Nica de Koenigswarter and Jazz Groupies

AAJ: Monk had a companion named Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter. She befriended Monk, Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, and a number of other musicians of the time.

JM: She had a dozen or more close musician friends.

TM: She was a member of the wealthy Rothschild family, and they rejected her possibly because she hung out with them.

AAJ: There are people like her who hang out with musicians.

TM: They're called drummers. [Laughter.]

JM: You planned that one. Right on time!

AAJ: There are folks like Koenigswarter who help the musicians. She did great favors for them and helped them out in all sorts of ways. In your experience, is this a phenomenon of jazz groups?

Thelonious MonkTM: Not so much now. In Monk's time, jazz was the music everyone listened to, very popular. A jazz group was almost like a rock band in that sense. Now, it's more like an art form, and I don't see too many groupies hanging around the bands. But I played a gig with Dave Posmontier. It was a class reunion from the '60s. And 300 of them hung out after the gig just to hear us jam. And I realized that they represented the end of an era, they were part of it all back then.

TL: Occasionally, we get someone who hangs out a lot and knows a lot of our tunes. But they're not there to help us out. Most of us haven't run into the likes of Baroness von Koenigswarter. She was almost a philanthropist.

AAJ: I heard that occasionally someone will have a patron, though.

TM: I had a lady patron. She was wealthy. She literally brought us food to gigs. She took care of us.

AAJ: Do you think Koenigswarter has a positive place in jazz history?

JM: Sure. Guys write tunes about her. Monk's composition"Pannonica" is about her, as is Horace Silver's "Nica's Dream."

TM: I think she'll always be remembered in a positive light as someone who was there when the guys needed her.

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