T.S. Monk Speaks Out
AAJ: I want to take some time to talk about your upcoming release, Higher Ground. This is a very interesting album. Is the band the same you've had throughout the past ten years?
TM: Parts of it. The vibe is the same. The only really new player is the trumpet player Winston Byrd. Byrd joined the band maybe two years ago. He was playing with the Ellington Orchestra and the Stylistics. Dig that double! A great young player. But the other guys, Willie Williams and Porcelli have been with me eleven years, Ray [Gallon] has been around about 4 years, and the bassist about 3 years. I'm a big believer in trying to hold a working ensemble together as long as possible, for any given working ensemble. It's rare that you're going to see me make a record with a new face that hasn't been working with me because I think you have to get to know each other'.I did Monk on Monk in '98. Now Monk on Monk for me'I'm not talking about the audience'for me was like the culmination of almost twenty years of being out here and being Thelonious Monk, Jr.
From the first day I started playing the drums, the first time people heard me play, they all asked, 'Did you play with your father? Do you play your father's music?' Bada-bing-bada-boom. I played with my father for five years. Then I went on and got involved with R & B for damn near 15 years, and that whole time it's still, 'What do you think of your father?' So I came back to jazz. I was surprisingly welcomed back to jazz, and all of a sudden not only do I have a little band going, but I'm actually popular and I'm working and my albums are selling. I got one of the hottest bands and I'm running around the world and still it's, 'You know he's a real fun kid. You should have seen him with his daddy. He's really fun. He did dance albums in the '70s. Great talker, you know he's a good speaker. And he's a good drummer, cat can play, cat can swing but, um, so what are you doing with your father's music?'
TM(continued): What people didn't realize is, I'm a jazz musician. This is a heavy intellectual endeavor. You ain't got no dummies playing on the level that we play at. So I don't know why people wouldn't think that I know who Thelonious Monk is just like they know who Thelonious Monk is. I ain't seen no rush of musicians running to do no treatments of Monk's music. I do see hordes of musicians rushing away from Thelonious's music 'cause it's too difficult. And I'm just a god damn drummer what the hell do people expect from me? (laughing). I knew that at the end of the day, sooner or later, I was going to have to deal with my father. Just as a bandleader I had to be almost flawless because of who I was, I also knew that when I made a record featuring'not just putting one or two of my father's tunes on it'a record of my father's music it was going to have to be untouchable by the critics. It was going to have to be something that would slap the critics back; No fuckin' discussion, nothing to talk about, muthafuckas this shit is swinging like hell and everybody's playing their ass off. This is Monk and there's no doubt about it.
AAJ: You can't just wake up one morning and do that.
TM: No. It took me from '92 when I started the band to 1994 to get up enough courage and to get the credibility under my belt to even entertain the idea to the kind of people I wanted involved. Then it took me another four years to sort of figure out what the hell am I going to do? I mean, everybody's been doing this that and the other for years and years and years. I ain't the first guy to do a tribute to Thelonious Monk I gotta do one that's special. So to make a long story short when I did Monk on Monk and I had the help of Don Siegler and all the wonderful musicians that were involved that made it a success, for me it was like, O.K. everybody, I've dealt with daddy. Now you all know that I know who daddy is. I said, O.K. I've done the keeper of the gate thing, too. In '92 with a super-duper straight ahead band. We had just lost Art Blakey and that's what I jumped on, was that opening and everybody said, 'You gotta hear Monk. They're like the Jazz Messengers. It's like an old time band. They're swingin'' So I said, I've done the can he play thing. Now that I'd done the 'Can he play' thing and the 'here's to daddy' thing, both had been successful, and I did 'I wanna dance' thing in the eighties'and was successful at that'it's time now for me to be what I was taught to be by my father and I was taught to be a jazz musician.