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T.S. Monk Speaks Out

By Published: November 6, 2003
TM: Exactly. It doesn't have the life in it. I'm involved with a biographer. A family biographer that I'm happy to say I became involved with before my mother's passing a year ago because it was very important to me that she approve of something like that. So between all these things that I'm doing I'm still discovering this guy. And more from an artistic perspective as opposed to a father figure. That's been a lot of fun because as an artistic figure'he was a whole lot of fun as a father'but I see more and more why he was so important to so many people. It gets into questions of character and commitment and dedication. It gets into the bedrock of what every jazz musician wants to be. And he was that. When we first started the Monk Institute of Jazz, which'is based in Washington, D.C.'now Washington, D.C. is Duke Ellington-ville'the very first question of the very first interview I ever did for the Institute'was, 'How come this is the Monk Institute and not the Duke Ellington Institute?' That was the very first question I ever got. And you know what I said? I said, 'The reason is because Thelonious represents the quintessential ideal of what every jazz musician ever born wants to be including Duke Ellington.' And that is absolutely unique. Absolutely focused. Never let the bright lights blind you. Stay right on the nitty-gritty tip of the cutting edge of whatever is going on. That's what all of us want to do. And that's what none of us can do. Dizzy can do it now and then. Chick can do it now and then. Two or three cats can do it. Everybody's struggling to do it and we can't do it at all! But Thelonious did it with such ease and grace and dignity that cats like Miles and Max and Bird and Dizzy and everybody gave it up for Monk.

You never heard anybody say anything about Monk but, 'Damn! That's Monk'. That's what we all want to be. That's what I want people to say, 'That's T.S. Monk' Put on my records and walk by and say, 'That's T.S. Monk' That's what we all dream of as jazz musicians and Thelonious did it. And he did it through thick and thin. He did it when the money was there and when the money wasn't there. He did it when it was the thing to do and he did it when it wasn't the thing to do, by the end of the late sixties. In retrospect'and I saw it the day he died'everybody said, 'Oh shit. Monk died.' It cut right to the core of everybody in a different way than Dizzy. In a different way from Miles. In a different way from all these people, because when he died it fucked them up while they were alive. I know it. I used to see it when I was a little kid. All these guys were around then. They were just young musicians. What I did notice is they all had their own little universe walking around. You know, Miles used to come over to the house and used to knock on the door like a child. I would open the door, and I'd be looking up and (imitates a nervous voice) 'uh,uh,uh, is Thelonious in. Can I come inside? Tell him I'm out here' And he would come in the house, man. My father might be lying on the bed and he'd sit there tinkling on the piano for four hours if it took four hours for Thelonious to come out of the room. And I said, 'this guy that came through the door is weird. There's some special stuff going on with him. But there's really some special stuff going on with daddy. Because all these guys, when they get around daddy they start acting funny'. This is how a little kid sees it. I remember seeing it like that. 'These guys act really funny all the time. But then when they get in a room with daddy, they act a different kind of funny, and it's like he's the only one that's funny.' It was really, really weird. So I saw this early on. It's some special, special stuff. I see why he's held on high.

Now, at this juncture, having had my own jazz group for ten years and spun around the jazz world several times'both figuratively and literally'and seeing the exact same response to the name Thelonious Monk in South Africa, down in Rio, that I get in Tokyo and San Francisco, or that I get in Paris or Saskatoon, or Sidney. I mean, man, this is over the top.

AAJ: You hear it every day, so I might as well add my voice to it. I think it was Monk that brought me into jazz. Along with Tony Williams.

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