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MONK! Thelonious, Pannonica, and the Friendship Behind a Musical Revolution


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They tried to get me to hate white people, but someone would always come along and spoil it.
—Thelonious Monk


A butterfly met a monk in 1954. In the wake of an almost 30 year friendship they left behind some of the best music of the 20th century—Thelonious Monk the creator, Pannonica de Koenigswarter an enabler. The story of their friendship has been told before, but never quite in this way. Youssef Daoudi is the author-illustrator of a 2018 genre-bending historical graphic novel. If you know the story don't let it stop you from reading Daoudi's work; it is uniquely creative. If you don't know the story, read this and learn why Monk said...

"They tried to get me to hate white people, but someone would always come along and spoil it."

It's been more than 50 years since Thelonious and Nica, a Rothschild family descendant, were a mainstream media item. After Charlie Parker died in her suite at the Stanhope Hotel it was assumed by much of the non-jazz media, probably most of them, that de Koenigswarter had a 'thing' for black men. In fact, she had a 'thing' for jazz genius. James Brown sang, "it's a man's world" and unfortunately men still decide the narrative in most jazz stories. This illustrated novel chooses to tell the real truth, not an innuendo.

Money had much to do with their friendship. Nothing new there, patronage of the arts has been around for a long time. The best of the wealthy know that art is not produced by wealth and privilege, it's the product of blood, sweat and tears. Think of the Renaissance in that regard, and in modern history there was a musical renaissance taking place in the 1950's in the USA. Time has told us that Monk's influence was wrongly measured. Now he is mentioned along with the Duke, Miles, Trane, Mingus, Bird, Dizzy and others in conversations about the "Fathers of Modern Jazz." Nica de Koenigswarter didn't need time to tell her that; she knew from the start Monk was teaching us a new way to hear. Daoudi's book makes that very clear.

The Book

Beautifully drawn in sepia-toned pen-and-ink Daoudi captures the spirit of Monk and his music. The drawings are artful reminders of the daguerreotypes of the long ago and far away similar to Monk, the man himself. During Monk's life, he had to battle, much like other jazz artists(oddly, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart also comes to mind—not so oddly on second thought), a public not ready for his art or eccentricity. By the way, his eccentricity supported the record company's idea that it could sell more of his records if they were perceived as the products of a mad genius. Late in life, who knows what really went on in Thelonious Monk's mind as mental health problems gained control. Credit should go to Daoudi's artistic rendition of what it may have been like during those last years.

Daoudi understands to the core the importance of Pannonica de Koenigswarter in Monk's life and Monk in hers—so too did Monk's wife Nellie Monk. Nica's dream likely grew from her need for independence, while Monk's dream was likely rooted in a need for recognition (he slammed a well-known jazz critic up against the wall after an unknowledgeable and unfavorable review).

Pannonica and Thelonious met backstage in Paris. As depicted in the novel they were Introduced to each other by another piano prodigy—Mary Lou Williams. The tone for their friendship may have been set then and there. Besides possessing an abundance of musical talent Mary Lou Williams was very much a helper to others in her life. She was a teacher and mentor—Monk's mentor in the 1940s in NYC. It's not hard to envision Nica and Mary Lou discussing what they were hearing from the modern jazz maestro whose improvisations led him to say, "the piano ain't got no wrong notes."

Daoudi's graphic novel portrays Monk and his wife in the Manhattan twilight, riding in the Buick de Koenigswarter bought them, discussing their love for each other. "Crepuscule with Nellie"—twilight with Nellie—first appeared on Monk's Music in 1957. The cover shows Monk sitting in a little red wagon with music sheets and pencil in hand. There is another panel of Nica de Koenigswarter saying she's fond of Monk because of his childlike personality. More than likely, a narrative novelist would delineate with the written word the connection between her comment and the album cover, Daoudi's novel doesn't have to—it is shown by his panels.

Their names have interesting origins. Thelonious, being a Latinized variation from the German for 'one who plows the earth' and Pannonica coming from a species of butterfly-moth, 'eublemma pannonica.' Imagine a butterfly circling a man in a field. The cover of MONK! depicts a similar image. Both of them bohemians, Nica acted very seriously by leaving family behind to befriend jazz musicians and follow her dream; Thelonious not so seriously with his numerous changes of hats. He was a style-setter in the jazz community.

Many panels in MONK! show Monk dancing. They give the impression of an extra-terrestrial from another planet. Seeing Thelonious rise from the piano to twirl around the stage can give one that impression(see You Tube link), but T.S. Monk asserts his father's dance steps originated from African dance. Much of the real Thelonious Monk can be discovered in this 2021 interview—One for the Ages.

Nica de Koenigswarter's passion for cats finds its place in Daoudi's work. At times there were close to 20 roaming her Weehawken, New Jersey house that was the jazz salon of the '60s, much as Salon d'Automne was for Matisse and the Fauves in 1905. The former home of legendary film director Josef von Sternberg (he made "Blue Angel" with Marlene Dietrich) has a view of the Manhattan skyline, something that certainly stirred the creative juices of the jazz cats who stayed there. In comic panels MONK! shows our main man was not always happy sharing his space with Nica's cats.

Through the drawings, Daoudi tries to capture Monk's music—a noble aspiration, at the very least a task for the surrealist. Where is Salvador Dali when you need him? Music lovers will get it, whether or not they agree with Daoudi's drawings illustrating how he feels about Monk's music. Daoudi is a Monk fan. One of the wonders of Monk's music is how it can strike us differently each time we hear it. Daoudi hears it in his own way and shows us what it means to him.

He does not avoid dealing with Monk's bipolar disorder. Part of the novel shows Monk in self-exile from performing and composing. He stays in bed in his room while Nica exhorts him to get help. Thorazine was part of the remedy—a controversial drug with side effects—one of them is a lack of energy. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-I) was published in the 1950's. Back then bipolar was called manic depression. It wasn't until the 1980's issue of DSM-III that bi-polar came into the lexicon. As the world learns about mental illness there will be more scientific knowledge of how the brain works, despite some resistance from the close-minded. Monk's illness should not impact his position in the jazz pantheon. If we could have taken pictures of his brain when he was alive like we can today it would have helped, but nothing can change the fact that he wrote "Round Midnight" long before he became ill.

The novel's authenticity is documented in its bibliography. The author relied primarily on two biographies—Monk's by Robin G. Kelley and the Baroness Rothschild's by Hannah Rothschild. Other books and articles are also cited. MONK! Is a fun read and much more.



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