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First Time I Saw

Crepuscules With Monk


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He took his rumpled handkerchief out, placed it at the edge of the keyboard and began to play 'Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland.'
Something was happening down on the lower East Side of Manhattan, down south of 14th Street way down in the rusty Bowery as the summer of 1957 was beginning. News of it spread out through the jazz community like the subterranean rumble of the subways underneath the clubs up on 52nd Street.

Monk was back.

After more than six years holed up in his Harlem apartment, his grand piano crammed into a corner of his kitchen, Nellie cooking and the kids all climbing under and around him like house cats, the radio blasting hillbilly music, and Monk sitting there composing as if he were alone in a garret somewhere, rocking gently back and forth on the piano bench—after six years in oblivion when he could not work in New York City because the police had pulled his cabaret card for possession of some infinitesimal amount of marijuana—Monk was back. (Technically, the weed wasn't even Monk's, it reportedly belonged to his sad-eyed, little friend with the crazy smile and the dancing hands, the other Piano Player, Bud Powell.)

During those six years in exile, Theolonius Monk refused to work outside New York City or to go into the recording studio, for reasons he never seemed interested in articulating. Now, after six years during which New York's music fans couldn't—weren't allowed—to hear the music of Theolonius Sphere Monk—he was suddenly back and playing at a little street level sliver of a club called the Five Spot Cafe in The Bowery just across from the gothic shadow of Cooper Union. Not uptown in the hip, bebop temples on Swing Street, or at Birdland or the Onyx or The Three Deuces; and not over in the West Village's beatnik "art scene at the Village Vanguard or the Cafe Bohemia. Monk was in The Bowery, "Bum Land, way over east in one of New York's many small disaster zones where people crash land and burn in desolate alleys and in cat piss-smelling bars. It was a neighborhood held together by poverty and addictions, where you could set a mattress on fire and instead of the fire department showing up, people would gather around it to keep warm all night. The bars down here are narrow, one-way coffin shaped joints. The rents predictably low, low enough that the two Tramini brothers, jazz fans since they were kids in Brooklyn, could afford to put the money they saved on rent into talent. And there was no question, Monk had that.

Theolonius Sphere Monk—some legends say he'd added that middle name himself back in the '40's when he was first coming up in bebop, reportedly "to show that he wasn't square —as if anyone with ears could possibly mistake his music for anything but music from another very hip planet. Theolonius was back playing again at the Five Spot Cafe.

Someone somewhere had pulled the right string, made the right phone call, did what had to be done within the mysterious workings of the NYPD of the time and gotten Theolonius's cabaret card back for him. It was a gift to the City. People were curious to see who Monk would have with him coming back after a half-dozen years in musical exile. Just about everybody wanted to play with him. Typically, Monk made some eccentric choices, people like Shadow Wilson on drums. Wilbur Ware on bass. And the new guy, the new tenor player who'd been with Miles. The "sheets of sound guy. Coltrane. John Coltrane, who after playing with Monk for a few historic weeks, observed with his typically simple precision: "He is a musical architect of the highest order.

I had never seen Monk before, not even pictures of him, and the only time I'd heard him play was on that album with Miles. The famous one in the early '50's where little upstart Miles Davis in his strangled voice told the giant Monk, who spoke mostly in caveman-like single syllable words, told Theolonius Monk to lay out during his solo on "The Man I Love."

Young Miles with his intense blue-flame of sound and his fuck-you attitude, in his beautifully tailored Ivy League suit telling big, hulking Monk towering over him in his snap brim pork pie hat, to "lay out? It's a wonder Monk didn't dinch Miles out like a cigarette butt. But instead of taking the elegantly diminutive Mr. Davis apart, Monk acted like a scolded little kid, whining almost, "Why can't I play, man, everybody else is playing? Genuinely hurt that Miles just wanted bass and drums underneath his solo. (Miles of course, was concerned that Monk's comping would be too interesting and would distract from what he was doing.) And then Miles telling Rudy Van Gelder, "Rudy, leave this on the record—all of it. Which he did.

Let's Call This

On the way down to the Five Spot, passing all the squalor and cardboard box homes and urine stained brick walls, and abandoned burlesque houses, I'm picturing an actual "Monk, a clergyman in a black cowl and sandals, and I'm wondering what the hell was his mother thinking back in Rocky Mount, South Carolina in 1917 when she'd named her baby son, her cuddly little infant boy, "Theolonius. What had she been trying to say or perpetuate by giving her child such an eccentric name? And what could it have been like for little Theolonius growing up with that moniker? As if "Monk weren't already weird enough.

"Theolonius, please come to the blackboard and write the 3 times table... Theolonius? Are you paying attention? The Five Spot was like a hundred other bars in the Bowery. Smoke-stained wood paneling, dim light as if filtered through a beer bottle, narrow, cracked plaster walls, and too many chairs and tables crammed together in front of the small bandstand which was really just a roughly carpeted platform about 6 inches high against one wall. The wall itself was a slipshod collage of jazz concert posters, sheet music, old menus and anything else that would cover up the spidery fissures and hole patterns. On the weekends now, you usually couldn't get in to the Five Spot because Monk was there. People kept coming, in spite of the fact that some nights Monk didn't even show up.

Or sometimes he would appear in the doorway an hour or two late, survey the room from behind dark, curved sunglasses with plastic bamboo side pieces, grunt softly to himself, turn around and leave, slipping back into the oily night. Other nights, he would arrive promptly at 9:35, sit down at the piano and play one song, finish it, play it again in an entirely different way, then get up and leave the club as people applauded, their jaws agape. A lot of people thought that seeing Monk do that was as good as hearing just about anyone else play a complete set. And now they had a Monk story to tell.

I got there on a weekday night well before 9pm with a few of my college friends and we secured a table close to the bandstand where I could look right at the keyboard and feel the vibration of Roy Haynes's bass drum. Monk was already in the club. Someone pointed him out lurking large and shadowy by himself in the little hallway leading to the claustrophobic men's room. He had a cigarette in his mouth, a Pall Mall. He almost always had a cigarette in his mouth, the smoke curling up into one eye. His hands hung down long from his sleeves showing several inches of gray-white cuff (Nellie dressed him and mostly she did a good job but sometimes he seemed to outgrow his clothes after he'd put them on).

He had the build of a big field worker come to the city in his only version of a suit. And he wore the porkpie hat, the brim turned up all the way around in that flippant, optimistic way that the early bop musicians used to do—Dexter Gordon and Coleman Hawkins and those guys—before Dizzy introduced the soft, free-form beret.

Think Of One

Of course, just because Monk was on the premises didn't necessarily mean he would play tonight. As people became aware that he was in the club, the tension, the wondering when or if he'd go on, became palpable. And then at exactly 9:15, Monk put on his bug eye sunglasses and strode to the piano. He stood looking at it at first, like a farmer approaching a cow that needed milking, then sat down heavily on the bench. He pulled a rumpled white handkerchief out of his inside pocket and set it precariously on the southward edge of the keyboard where his right hand could reach it. As Monk raised his head to let the smoke from his cigarette curl up over his profile and trail gracefully around his hat brim, the other musicians materialized on the stand from various parts of the room, summoned by some silent signal.

Monk did not count off the tune or snap his fingers or even nod his head to indicate the tempo. He just laid his big flat hands down onto the keyboard, jerked his head back slightly once and the tempo was there. Right there. Instantly. And they all felt it. They played Monk's tune "Evidence. Coltrane was no longer with them. Now it was the Little Giant, Johnny Griffin, on tenor in his smart bankerly blue suit, showing just the right amount of cuff. He grabbed right onto the end of Monk's first hand movement like a bird following its own shadow. The ragged precision, the spontaneous dynamics, the odd shaped spaces between the notes, the off-balance accents, and the breathless exuberance of child-like discovery were all so dazzling, it was too much to take in. All I could think was: why has music never sounded like this before?

Almost immediately, I was aware, even in my 19-year-old musical naiveté, that I was in the presence of a completely original mind. This was music created by a creative contraryian with his own rules for just about everything. The music had its own logic, and its own unique satisfactions. Obscure but yet extremely accessible. There are no musical terms to describe some of the sounds and techniques Monk used because no one had ever used them before. Not in quite the same ways. And yet they all seemed somehow disconcertingly familiar, thoughts of melodies you might have had and dismissed from your own mind as too random or disjointed or surreal, were suddenly fitted together into an astounding mosaic you never thought you'd actually hear. It was something like watching a master mason cobble together a beautifully symmetrical stone wall out of jagged shards, unwieldy boulders and odd-shaped rocks. Ideas you could never imagine, existing together, suddenly meshed and held and became a solid, seamless musical thought or gesture.

As someone new to Jazz, I was just starting to be able to recognize where one musician had borrowed something from another, how they'd share a certain musical vocabulary and then pass it through themselves in ways that made it their own. But with Monk it was virtually all different from start to finish. Listening to him now, thirty years later after a lifetime of listening to all the best players, I can hear brief, distorted references to Duke, to Bud, of course. And to Fats Waller. Ideas so basic to the piano itself that all pianists share them. But when Monk played them, they became entirely new.

Even people not musically sophisticated and unfamiliar with the premise of Jazz, could appreciate Monk's music. I have often thought in retrospect that this was because Monk's music was so much like actual "playing in the true child-like sense of the word, like what all of us as children imagine we can do the very first time we sit down at a piano— before realizing we have to take lessons to make the sounds in our brain come out through our hands.

Not that Monk played sloppily, or randomly, or with bad technique. He was extremely adroit and logical. But he had invented his own language. His own premises. And it sometimes required elbows and forearms to make a chord big enough for the sound he was hearing in his head. Sometimes a vertical fist or a flattened palm was necessary.

Several times on this night, his conception seemed to demand the use of that tattered, wrinkled handkerchief he'd placed at the end of the keyboard. At the most unexpected moments, he'd draw it lightly across a section of the keys like a magician making a rabbit disappear. (Was he just drying off the perspiration that had dripped from his face onto the keyboard, or was this action really producing a sound too? It was impossible to tell, even sitting a few feet from him.)

Monk worked everything into his music, the traffic sounds outside, the clink of glasses and the ring of the cash register at the bar—even the smoke from his ever-present cigarette snaking its way up his face. A phrase or a note got bent and angled off in an unexpected direction, and then fluttered free into the air. "Panonnica, released.

At other moments, he'd allow the ash on his cigarette to get really long as he played and the tension of wondering if it would drop off onto the keyboard would get incorporated into the music too. And you waited to hear which side of the phrase a note would fall on.

Though Monk was clearly the group's Leader, he didn't seem to dictate to the other musicians how long a solo to take. Crowded onto the small bandstand with his back to Monk, Johnny Griffin would start out from the head with tenor blazing, lots and lots of notes, cascading runs and melodies scampering all over the musical staff like monkeys escaping over a fence.

Often, Monk would stop comping behind Griffin and lay out completely, doing of his own accord what the wily Miles had so audaciously ordered him to do on that record years ago. Monk sat there listening, maybe just letting us imagine what he might have played. Then gradually, he'd sneak some ideas in under the horn line and everything changed direction, like a hurtling freight train suddenly shunted off onto a different track. (There were some times when everything changed direction that way and all Monk had played was a single note.)

Well You Needn't

This night, on the third tune, "Well, You Needn't, Monk took a couple of choruses after the head, then laid out and let Johnny play with the rhythm section. Achmed Abdul Mallick was putting down a tense, tempo-infused bass line that Roy Haynes used to hang his explosions and snap-crackle-pop curlicues on. But even though Monk was not playing, you could feel his presence in the music. (Even on his records you can get this sense of withheld tension, the sound of Monk intensely holding back, not playing.)

Suddenly, Monk produced a half-dozen or so black plastic cocktail stirrers from his jacket pocket and with the tip of his lit cigarette began fusing them together as the quartet continued to swing around him. In seconds Monk the pianist had become Monk the minimalist sculptor. He constructed an angular, primitive piece of sculpture less than a foot high, a kind of crazy, miniature set of monkey bars that was a visual version of one of his angular, abstract piano solos full of fascinating tensions and unexpected connections. An original piece of art created in about the space of three choruses. Monk finished his plastic masterpiece just in time to come in for his solo, setting the sculpture on top of the piano and swinging his hands down onto the keyboard in one motion at precisely the right place. There was no transition. It was all one musical thought coming perfectly off Griffin's last phrase.

Now, years and years later, I often picture that little piece of plastic art that Monk sculpted and wonder what became of it. Did his wife, Nellie, in her wisdom and caring for the great genius she was placed in charge of, secure it along with other Monk memorabilia like his big straw coolie hat, his chewed up pencils and his scribbled, undecipherable "arrangements?

Monk's Dream

The set ended and Monk stepped down from the little bandstand very tentatively as if maybe he was afraid the floor was suddenly going to move—like a man stepping into a rowboat. Suddenly he didn't seem to trust solid ground all that much. It must have played a trick on him once or twice.

I watched him take a seat at a table in the back of the room with the other musicians. Monk was older then most of the guys he played with that night, but in many ways he was much younger. I was fascinated to see how they related to him off the stand, outside the music. From across the room, it looked like they seldom really connected in conversation with him for any extended time. There were a few small, fragmented interchanges and often when Monk would mutter something, the others seated at the table exchanged puzzled looks as if to say, "What? Did you understand that? Then someone would say something in Monk's direction and he would pause for a long time as if he had to come back from some other sphere and find his other voice, the one he wasn't using to make music with—his talking voice. He had to travel a long way back and check along the way to be sure he was going in the right direction, using the right language, the language that other people understood, not the one he'd invented for himself out of notes and sounds and who knows what else.

He'd take a long drag on his cigarette and then let the smoke trickle out the side of his mouth. As he slowly came back into a conversation—those times when he actually made it back—he'd give a little grunt of recognition at one point:

"Oh, is this my stop?

Almost missed it again. And there'd be a fleeting smile of recognition. A brief light behind the dark inward-looking eyes as a momentary connection was made.

But sometimes, it seemed, he couldn't find his way all the way back and the words wouldn't come and all Monk could manage was a grunt and his gaze would completely leave the room, dissolving through the walls and ceilings and into the dark wood-colored light. According to those who knew him well, there were times when he seemed to disappear like this for hours, and even days.


I got to see Theolonius many times in the small intimacy of The Five Spot where he remained ensconced for a few years. It was always an enlightening experience. And when he was finally prompted to move on to other clubs like The Village Vanguard and The Jazz Gallery, we followed him.

At a newer club, The Jazz Gallery, a few blocks north of The Five Spot, in the psychedelic East Village, Monk settled in to a larger, more presentational venue. That was where I first saw him dance. In the tight confines of The Five Spot, I'd often noticed Monk rocking his piano bench back and forth in tempo, like a man on a raft. But here at The Gallery one night during one of Charlie Rouse's exquisitely tailored tenor solos, with the rhythm section cooking along hard on "Straight, No Chaser, Monk, wearing his big straw Chinese coolie hat tied under his chin, got up from the piano and started to dance.

At first, you couldn't be certain it was dancing. Standing in one spot, Monk, who was well over six feet tall, began lurching around as if he were trying to screw himself into the floor. It seemed so out of character for him. He had always been so "undemonstrative, so still, and seemingly unaware of the audience. But it was soon clear that he wasn't dancing for the audience. He never really acknowledged their presence. To the whirling in place, Monk added a few cross-over steps. He was not one of those big men who surprise you by how light they are on their feet. Monk's dancing was flat-footed and heavy. The stage shook slightly beneath his weight. He didn't cover a lot of ground, but he moved very intensely in one place. It wasn't graceful but it was definitely dancing, rooted in the time signature and the groove the band was in. In the audience, a few smatterings of applause broke out along with some laughter, which Monk did not appear to notice.

Charlie Rouse's solos were always so marvelously assembled, so logical and structured like a perfect story, that it was easy to hear when he was coming to the end of his choruses. Monk kept dancing until it seemed like he was going to miss his entrance, but then at the very last instant, he whirled one final time and collapsed onto the piano bench again, hitting the keyboard with his hands and producing the miraculously unexpected beginning of another one of his solos that was as fresh and flawless as a new coat of paint.

When Rouse and Monk played together they meshed like two whirling gears. Rouse fed off Monk's ideas and Monk was stimulated by the tenor man's thoughts time and time again, year in and year out for the decades they would play together. When Rouse would finish his solo, he'd acknowledge the applause with a slight head bow and settle into the curve of the piano with his eyes closed like a lizard sunning himself, listening intently for what Monk would do this time. Often Rouse would laugh to himself indicating that even after the hundreds of gigs they'd played together, Monk had done something completely new and unexpected again. Night after night. Year after year. Rouse would just shake his head gently in disbelief and smile—smile at the new place Monk had taken him.

On the break this one particular night at The Jazz Gallery, I left my table and headed for the men's room. Another patron was just exiting, laughing to himself. I opened the door and discovered why. There in the white tiled, odorous bathroom, Theolonius was continuing his dance, his in-place whirling, alone, oblivious, finishing some circular musical idea he'd had up on the stand a few moments ago perhaps, the music still playing in his head and sending him off somewhere new, laughing to himself, his big arms windmilling around in the cramped quarters. Turning, waving, laughing to himself, his chin tucked in to his chest. whirling, waving, laughing. Happy as a child until someone finally came and led him back to the piano. "Oh, yeah, I'm back here now, right. Back at the piano. Right.

He took his rumpled handkerchief out, placed it at the edge of the keyboard and began to play "Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland. A sweet, corny, old-fashioned tune that Monk turned into an abstract sound painting without doing a single bit of damage to the beautifully unpretentious original melody.

Then one day after more than 30 years of playing, Monk just stopped. He complained simply that he was tired. They put him to bed in the Countess Nica's apartment with its sunny view of the East River and Monk pulled the covers up to his chin and waited to die, which he did after a few tiring months.

Apparently Monk had finally finished playing everything he could possibly think of to play, everything he had ever wanted to play—and rather than repeat any of it, he simply and quietly moved on.

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