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Pianist Thelonious Monk cut an elusive figure throughout his public life as an innovator of early bebop. The very mystery surrounding Monk as a personality is what makes the one-man play Monk, now available on DVD, compelling viewing.
The ninety-minute theater piece begs this simple question: Just what was Monk thinking? Playwright Laurence Holder and actor Rome Neal give us complex answers. The play, filmed at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, traces Monk's life chronologically from his early years as a church musician through his career on the vanguard of the bebop movement to his demise in relative seclusion.
Rather than a point-by-point narration of Monk's life, however, Holder and Neal focus on Monk's struggle to articulate his inner reality, a reality sometimes clouded by narcotics and possibly mental illness. Monk's triumph, in the end, the play suggests, lay in his ability to defy the inner chattering and outer naysayers long enough to create an enduring musical legacy.
Neal renders an engaging Thelonious Monk, making full use of a simple set with his inspired dancing, his modest costume changes and his resonant voice. The original score is by Bill Lee, who also scores son Spike's films. Of particular interest is a bonus track that includes, among others, an interview with Ossie Davis, most likely one of Davis' last interviews before his death in February 2005.
I love jazz because it mixes intellect and emotion in a very spontaneous way.
I was first exposed to jazz by liberating a Coltrane and a Pharoah Sanders record from a friend in NYC and listening to them over and over until I got it.
My advice to new listeners is you have to take the time to listen to some jazz tunes a number of times until it starts to make sense.