Monkadelphia: All Monk, All the Time

Victor L. Schermer By

Sign in to view read count
Over the past several years, there has been a revival and reconsideration of the music of Thelonious Monk. No one embodies this trend better than Monkadelphia, a group of Philadelphia-based jazz musicians who play his music exclusively—a difficult challenge which they embrace with vitality, panache, and sophistication. With Chris Farr on saxophone, Tony Miceli on vibes, Tom Lawton on piano, Micah Jones on bass, and Jim Miller on drums, this group makes the Monk legacy come alive, sustaining rapt attention throughout extended nightclub sets and concert gigs. Their forthcoming 2010 CD is masterful, with echoes of the best groups of the 1950s and 1960s, reflecting Monk's unique contributions yet representing Monkadelphia's own approach, developed in over a decade of performing his music together.

A recent reading of Robin D.G. Kelley's definitive biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, and an All About Jazz interview with Professor Kelley , led to a meeting with some members of Monkadelphia to learn more about them and their take on Monk's unique music and personality.

Chapter Index
  1. Monkadelphia: The Beginnings
  2. The Monkadelphia Magic
  3. Monk's Music
  4. Monkadelphia Now
  5. Monk and His Cohorts
  6. Monk's Contribution to the Jazz Legacy
  7. Thelonious Monk's Unique Persona
  8. Nica de Koenigswarter and Jazz Groupies
  9. Concluding Reflections

Monkadelphia: The Beginnings

All About Jazz: How was the group Monkadelphia conceived?

Tony Miceli: I initiated the idea of a group only because I wanted to work with Tom Lawton and John Swana. It turned out the two of them had already been talking about starting a group playing only Monk's music. This was years ago, and at the time I didn't like Monk very much, though it was based on ignorance, but I was a good organizer and I wanted to play with these guys. Jim Miller got into it, and then Micah Jones came on board. So I said to them, let's start, let's find a place to perform where they let us play what and how we want. Everybody thought that was a good idea. So we ended up at a little place called Silk City.

Jim Miller: I remember how I got into it. Tony and I were doing a Jazz Vespers gig in Villanova, and Tony said, "Do you want to be in a rehearsal band?"

TM: Yeah, you said something about Monk, and then...

JM: Yeah, and then I asked, "Do you guys do 'Off Minor'?" I was trying to name some obscure ones, and you said, "Yeah," and I said "Criss Cross," and you said "Yeah," and I said "Trinkle Tinkle," "Yeah," and I said, "OK! I'm in!"

TM: Actually, I didn't even know what those songs were at that time.

JM: You were bullshitting?

TM: I was totally bullshitting you [laughter]! I can tell you with all truth that I didn't know anything about Monk. I might have heard something about him on the radio, but that was it. So when you mentioned those tunes, I didn't know what you were talking about. I was just trying to get us together as a band.

Tom Lawton: And I have no perspective on whether it was seven or ten years ago that we started.

JM: The live recording we did at Rowan University was in 1999.

TM: So we probably started in 1996. We played at Silk City every week for about two years. It was a somewhat bizarre place where everybody had tattoos.

JM: And they had Vampire Night, remember that?

TL: And maybe five people would come, but we'd play anyhow.

TM: We'd play two hours straight, one set instead of two.

AAJ: Who else was in the group at that time besides the three of you? John Swana?

TM: He guested sometimes.

TL: And Ben Schachter sometimes did the early performances. Butch Reed did an early one. However, it wasn't an organized group at the time. It was a "Monk session."

AAJ: Which of you was heavily into Monk at the time?

TL: Me and Jim.

Thelonious MonkJM: One of the first jazz albums I ever bought was when I was in high school, and I had to take a bus, and there was a record store right there in Indianapolis, and I would haunt that record store. I was looking at all the pop records, and then I wandered over to the jazz section, and I knew absolutely nothing about jazz, but I did notice that Monk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Sun Ra had to be the best because they had the most records in their bin sections. And I remember buying the Monk album just for the cover, and it was Underground (Columbia, 1968). It had a great cover—I knew nothing about Thelonious Monk as such. That was, now that I think of it, the second jazz album I bought. The first was Art Tatum, God is in the House (HighNote, 1973), and I bought that for a similar reason: boy if they're callin' this guy God, he must be good.

AAJ: Were you immediately taken by Monk after that?

JM: I liked the tune, "In Walked Bud," because it had words. I was playin' in the jazz group at school, but wasn't listening to jazz records very much.

AAJ: Getting back to the group, you were doing some Monk "sessions," but when did you actually form a group dedicated to Monk?

TL: I think a few weeks into it, it ended up being a pretty stable group with the three of us and Chris Farr and Micah Jones.

JM: I know that the first time I participated, you guys already had all the music. You already had the charts.

AAJ: Do you ever play anything other than Monk?

TL: No, not in this particular group.

TM: And just to set the record straight from what I said before, as soon as we jelled, I began buying Monk CDs and realized it was heavy music. But at the time I just wanted to play. That's my M.O. My whole life, I just wanted to play, whatever it was that came up.

AAJ: But when you first started listening to Monk, when you said "heavy," did you mean it was hard to understand, or that it was really good?

TM: Well for one thing, I thought by that time I already had a handle on chord changes, and this was only fifteen years ago, but they're playing these Monk tunes, and I'm steppin' on myself all over the place, and I really had no clue. I really had to pay attention to the melody now, and it was difficult playing his music, which I thought was bebop, but I really couldn't do it at first.

MonkadelphiaJM: See—that's exactly the thing! How Monk got to be called the "High Priest of Bebop" is astounding, because his music is not bebop.

AAJ: That's a very important issue that I want to go over a bit later.

TM: But, getting back to what I was saying, I did fall in love with Monk's music. Looking back, my initial confusion was based on total ignorance.

TL: Dave Liebman once guested with us at the Deerhead Inn, and even a brilliant musician like him told us it took him a long time to get into Monk.

AAJ: Even in Monk's time, the complexity of his music initially confused people a lot. Some of the most experienced and highly regarded players couldn't get it, and couldn't make it with his groups.

The Monkadelphia Magic

AAJ: One of the reasons I wanted to interview you guys, is that I've heard Monkadelphia perform several times over a few years, and it seems to me that you do consistently well together, and the way you do Monk is extremely tight, brilliant, and well-coordinated, which is no easy accomplishment. I've heard you at the Deerhead, at Chris' Jazz Café, and on CDs, and it's consistently clean and top-notch playing. Now, Monk can be pretty strange.

Monkadelphia / Tom LawtonTL: It's funny, I don't find it strange at all.

AAJ: Tom, you're so eclectic that you don't find anything strange [laughter]. OK, "bleep" what I just said!

TM: Leave it in!

AAJ: But truthfully, more than a few musicians walked out on sessions with Monk, because they couldn't get it. The rhythms and harmonies can be pretty awkward, and some of the changes are "strange"—you have to admit it. I'm often surprised at how coherently you play his music. So my question is: what enables you guys to groove together so well on such complicated, sometimes convoluted music?

TL: Well, first of all, we're playing the same tune, and the same form, so that's the unifying factor. Importantly, I don't think any of us are setting out to replicate Monk's style.

AAJ: Are there standard harmonies for Monk's tunes?

TL: He has devices that he uses a lot. Some are built-in. Like a lot of the harmonic movement between chord changes. He uses a lot of dominant cycles, half-step, whole-step. They can be deceptively simple, but there's something unpredictable about it at the same time. So we have to learn those structures to deal with it. But the reason we play together well—first of all, it's frequency. We do it a lot. Second, we're not out to sound like one of Monk's groups. We might use some "Monk-isms" as an affectionate nod towards him, or because it's in our system just by osmosis, but we're not setting out to replicate anything, in other words, his tunes and his spirit are inspiration enough for us to do our own thing.

JM: I think the five of us just have this natural organic chemistry thing. We're all listening like crazy to each other. Robin Kelley says in his biography of Monk that as soon as Charlie Rouse got in Monk's band, Monk would always start his solos based on the last thing that Rouse played. That's one of those "Monk-isms"—it's a thing that he would do. And we do too, but we probably would have done it even if Monk hadn't, because it's just a way of gluin' the tune together.

AAJ: Do you tend to learn the tunes by ear, or use charts?

TM: A mixture of the two.

AAJ: Do you woodshed the tunes, or just come in and start playing?

TM: When we started, we had plenty of leeway, because the room was small, and the people in the room were there for other reasons than to hear the music, so we'd just play the stuff in any way we wanted to.

JM: So sometimes, we'd play the same tune two or three times in a row, or make an adjustment and start over.

AAJ: Monk was known to do that as well.

TL: Very little is arranged. There's a few tunes where we might have a concept as a starting point, but even the heads are fairly unarranged.

AAJ: I think Monk himself did a lot of teaching and learning by ear, not so much by charts.

TM: Yeah, they say that when you got in his house, he'd teach you the tunes. They just released an old radio interview with Coltrane, and he spoke about how he'd drop in on Monk, and Monk would teach him a tune, and then Monk would go and take a nap while Trane practiced it.

AAJ: He didn't just hand him a chart, and say "Learn this tune."

TL: Sometimes he did. He was musically quite literate.

TM: I'm glad we did it that way at the beginning. I just want to play with these guys and learn something.

TL: The biggest lesson you can learn from an iconic figure like Monk or Trane, is just try to be yourself—not try to be them. Thus, I don't care whether Monk might not approve of the way we play certain things. Like, he once told a member of his group not to improvise on the chord changes but on the melody. But we'll go in and out of each, depending on what we're in the mood for. Sometimes we do want to play over the changes and ignore the melody. Other times, the melody is the basis. And we're not trying to please Monk.

AAJ: In fact you're following Monk's idea of originality.

TM: We're just doing our thing.

Thelonious MonkMonk's Music

JM: I just like Monk's music because it had more humor in it than any other music I had heard. And Liebman once said that for someone who had a very limited palette at his disposal, he still came up with sixty or more tunes!

AAJ: Why did Liebman think Monk had a limited palette?

JM: Because he used repeated structures and devices over and over again.

TL: But he did have a lot of variety. You could say about a lot of musicians that the scope of their language was limited, but they maximized the use of it.

JM: For me, Wayne Shorter has this thing too, that built into the tune there are these things you can keep referring to all the way through, and for me of course as a drummer, it's not so much the harmony. I'm just listening for the melodic stuff, and these quirky little rhythmic things that Monk would do. And it's something you can keep referring to throughout the tune.

AAJ: That kind of recurrence is very striking with Monk, almost a trademark.

TL: Right, and you can sometimes do it very literally, at other times not at all, and other times, do it in a veiled manner.

TM: Well, he did it like when you study some heavy cat like Dexter Gordon or Clifford Brown, or some of those other guys, you see the same things come up over and over again. And it goes back to what Liebman said about Monk having a limited palette. But here we see it in composition, you get the same stuff over and over again, but it's nothing negative because it's incredible what he does with it.

AAJ: And each time it comes up, it's a little different. But it's interesting that one of the things that holds Monkadelphia together so well are these reference points in the song.

JM: Absolutely.

Monkadelphia Now

Monkadelphia / Jim Miller AAJ: Just so we don't give a false impression about the group, although you started out on the fringes, as many jazz groups do, you have indeed attracted a significant following and larger, more attentive audiences. When did you start gaining momentum that way?

TM: We developed a steady gig at Chris' Jazz Café, once a month or so. In Philadelphia, word gets around if you're really focusing on something worthwhile. And people started coming out to hear us. Jim is sort of our resident "marketing genius," but we struggle.

AAJ: My impression is that you have a good following now.

TM: When we play at the Philadelphia Art Museum, we get hundreds of people.

TL: And to our surprise, when we played in Somers Point, NJ during the summer months, we had one of the best audiences for Monk ever.

AAJ: I've been told by Tony that you're basically a leaderless group, that no one is the director or star. Now is that a rarity in jazz? I mean you have the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the McCoy Tyner Trio. Most groups seem to be built around a leader. Do you know of any other leaderless groups? And regarding that approach, who calls the signals when you're on the bandstand? And how do you prevent anarchy?

JM: It all seems to happen naturally. Chris Farr tends to announce the tunes. He's sort of the emcee.

AAJ: How do you know who takes the next chorus?

JM: It's just eye contact.

TL: Somebody's done playing, they sort of look up, and somebody else takes over.

JM: However, for our recent recording, we did talk about the order of the solos and so on.

TL: That's just because we didn't want to waste precious studio time. But actually, there are many examples of leaderless groups. For instance, there have been some groups at the Knitting Factory in New York in the last decade that were collectives.

JM: The Art Ensemble Of Chicago—who's the leader of that?

TL: And even in leaderless groups, there may be an occasional leader for one or another tune.

JM: When we did our recording, we did it in two four hour sessions that were midnight to 4AM or something, to save money. We rehearsed for them at the University of the Arts, and Chris would come up with the angle for one tune. Or it was Tony's idea to do "Epistrophy" in seven.

TL: On "Green Chimneys" we had the bassist doing the melody.

JM: Chris Farr came up with that little thing at the end of "Eronel." The stuff just kinda grows. Anybody that's got a suggestion, hey, let's do that.

TM: The point is simple. If you put time into something, it evolves. And we've put hours and hours into this group. When you do that, even a mistake becomes a cool thing. I don't know if it was the time period, but when we were coming up, we were doing sessions all the time. I had three or four sessions a week at my house. We're just interested in playing the music. With the young people I teach, I don't see them having sessions like that.

AAJ: That's what led to the really great jazz players and groups. Those informal sessions used to happen all over Philadelphia.

TM: Well that's where the directions for Monkadelphia come from, the frequent sessions we've done.

TL: I think that what makes for a really good group these days is walking the fine line between a pickup blowing session and an organized regular group. If you can have both of those vibes in the same group, it's really great.

AAJ: And you guys seem to have that combination of spontaneity and organization.

TM: The other thing is, playing with guys like these here, and Chris and Micah, for me, all these guys have monster ears. So things can happen in a split second, because everybody hears, oh, it's this! Jim could play a rhythm, and everybody knows where it ends, or Tom could play a chord, and Micah or Chris can do something with it. If you work with guys like these, who are phenomenal musicians, everything's going to evolve the way it should.

Jim MillerAAJ: A propos of that, most historically known societal groups without leaders, with some exceptions like the Quakers, tend to devolve into chaos. So, do you ever have squabbles in the group, or become disorganized? In reality, Monkadelphia has had a rather long tenure for any jazz group. You must be doing something right.

TM: Yeah, we've been together so long, and did so many sessions together, that these days we almost don't have to rehearse. The vibe comes back at the drop of a hat.

AAJ: A lot of jazz groups have a history of conflict and trouble. Egos taking over; guys not showing up; drugs.

TM: No, if anything, these guys are so laid back. I'm probably the guy with most of a problem. Micah's like butter—he just stands back there with his bass. Chris is cool.

AAJ: You don't have a lot of agendas.

TM: No, we don't have any agendas.

TL: We know what this group is about, and it's not about the kinds of things like money, prestige, and so on, that create conflict.

Monk and His Cohorts

AAJ: To return to the music, what are a couple of favorite Monk recordings for each of you? You, Jim, mentioned Underground.

JM: Yeah, that is a favorite, but I like everything I've bought of his.

TM: I always liked the one he did with Coltrane, for a number of reasons. When it was more recently re-released, it was something none of us had heard, so it was exciting.

JM: I've got a tape of a recording that Robin Kelley mentioned in the Monk biography, with Trane, Roy Haynes on drums. I've got a bootleg cassette of that one. I think it was made by Trane's wife, Naima, and that's pretty incredible.

TL: I always liked Live at the Five Spot Café (Blue Note, 1958). And I know it's kind of a sacrilege, but my favorite ones were those that Johnny Griffin was on, the group with Shadow Wilson and Wilbur Ware. When I was coming up, I listened to that one practically non-stop for a couple of months because it was one of the few more modern jazz recordings my dad owned, and just the way they played those forms. And something about the way Johnny Griffin meshed with that group.

JM: You're not alone. A number of critics felt that Griffin was one of Monk's best saxophone players, and he had the best at different times: Sonny Rollins, Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Rouse, Phil Woods. Even a couple of early gigs with Charlie Parker. Griffin, of course, came out of Duke Ellington's band, and Monk loved Ellington.

TM: What's the one Monk did in Paris? Did it at a club in Paris, and the tunes are really long?

Thelonious MonkAAJ: What about Brilliant Corners (Riverside, 1957)?

TL: Yeah, that's a great one too, even though we decided not to do the title tune on our recording. I understand Monk's group did 25 takes of it for their recording. It's a tough tune to get right.

AAJ: Kelley's biography says that that album was saved by Orrin Keepnews, who edited the many takes into what became the released album. Jim, do you like Max Roach's drumming on that one?

JM: Oh, yeah, sure. But you know, in that biography, Kelley says that for one gig he had Scott LaFaro on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. One of the critics said that besides Art Blakey, Elvin was the only drummer who seemed to understand Monk's concepts. And I'm thinkin': "wow, I'd love to hear that one!"

AAJ: When LaFaro gigged with him, Monk wanted him to become his regular bassist.

JM: But between Ornette Coleman and Bill Evans, LaFaro was already booked up.

Monk's Contribution to the Jazz Legacy

Monkadelphia / Micah JonesAAJ: Now, some critics consider Monk to have been an idiosyncratic musician, neither a part of the mainstream nor the avant-garde. So, I'd like to know your thoughts about Monk's contribution to the overall development of modern jazz.

JM: As I said earlier, I don't know where that idea of Monk being a founder of bebop came from. His music is not bebop. Just the fact that he keeps talkin' about don't pay any attention to the chord changes. Just play around the melody. I mean, that was much more in tune with the avant-garde thing that followed Monk. I mean, any bebop tune, you can completely ignore the head and just solo over the chord changes, but with Monk, you have to think over the tune.

TL: Even if you're not playing it.

JM: You don't have to play the tune, but you have to keep that form in mind. I mean, he's got some tunes that are just rhythm changes, and a couple of blues, but mostly he's got these weird forms. And so mostly, he's some kind of thing unto himself.

TL: Right, he did come up in the bebop era, but he wasn't doing what the other bebop players like Bird and Dizzy were doing.

TM: Tell me if I'm right, but I always put Duke Ellington there, and I always think about Andrew Hill and Randy Weston, and those guys were on the side. I never put Monk on the path of bebop, I moved him over. And that tree with Monk doesn't go far.

JM: One time, we were going to do a tribute concert to Duke Ellington, and on the way over, I put on the Duke Ellington and John Coltrane recording, and boy, Monk and Duke, they sure are sharin' something.

TL: As a matter of fact, one time I heard a version of "Caravan" on the radio, and I was sure it was Monk, but it turned out to be Duke. And Monk often credited Duke for inspiring him.

JM: And Mingus, too.

AAJ: Monk played with Duke once at Newport.

TL: Yeah, a lot of the clanging dissonances like the intervals of minor sevenths and minor seconds that Monk used, Duke had already done. And like Monk, Duke came out of stride piano. On the whole, I would say that Monk was idiosyncratic, in that it wasn't everyday use of the language. Now, you could argue that his tune, "Skippy," is sort of a bebop head, and it's totally linear, but it's still quirky. You could say that it's a quintessential example of someone using bebop language in a totally idiosyncratic way.

AAJ: You all seem to agree that he was indeed outside of the bebop development, so in that case, what did he contribute to jazz? Occasionally, you get a genius who yet stands apart from the crowd and is a unique thing unto himself.

TL: He contributed many things with rhythmic displacements, playing in the cracks of the beat against the rhythm section.

TM: I got from that, if the rhythm's happening, you could almost do whatever you want.

JM: You know, for my whole life as a drummer, I've heard that my job is to make the band sound good. Yet Monk once said to saxophonist Steve Lacy, "Don't forget—always make the drummer sound good." He's saying that to the horn player, and I'm thinking, "Boy! I really like Monk more than ever!" [Laughter.]

TM: Another contribution he made is that, I'm thinking in bebop there's no room for the whole tone scale. And then there's Monk, and he's just kind of all over the place. And I just never saw whole tone scales in bebop tunes quite like that.

TL: I've heard whole tone scales used in bebop, but Monk did make a special use of it.

TM: I always felt it was awkward to play whole tone scales on bebop tunes, but you do it on Monk tunes, and it just fits right in.

AAJ: Did Monk have his own harmonic understanding?

TL: Well, yeah, his voicings. We always joke that he wouldn't win the competition named after him. If you think of vocalists, saxophones, and guitars, where you can bend notes, his use of a minor second on top of a chord, that's sort of the piano's way of bending notes, so in his case it was probably less of a dissonance than his way of trying to get to the blue note inbetween.

JM: Who was it who said that Bill Evans could take a beat up old upright piano, and make it sound like a nine foot Steinway grand? Well, Monk could take a nine foot Steinway and make it sound like an out-of-tune beat up old upright! [Laughter.]

Tony Micelli / Philly 5AAJ: All criticisms of Monk's technique aside, he had strong echoes of stride piano and the sounds they made on those old uprights. Clint Eastwood made a wonderful documentary on the development of jazz piano styles, including Ray Charles, who was influenced by those old-timers.

JM: I wasn't trying to diss Monk, but those minor second sounds reflected those earlier styles.

TL: In other words, it has an earthy, guttural sound as opposed to a refined sound.

TM: The point is that Monk is a genius, and he's great, but you can't apply the same standard that you would apply to these other guys. What makes him great is that he's unique; you can't compare him to the others.

TL: Keith Jarrett is a great Monk interpreter, but you can't compare him to Monk. That's the beauty of Monk's tunes—you can actually play them the opposite way to the way he played them, and they still work well.

AAJ: You're saying that once you get past the apparent idiosyncrasies, there's something universal about Monk.

TL: He played the standard, "I Should Care" with his clanginess, and it would be beautiful. Yet Bill Evans could play Monk's "Round Midnight" and make it sound pretty instead of guttural. And it's just as valid.

AAJ: Around the time of Monk, there were a bunch of innovators around, like Bud Powell, Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphy. And they were all doing new things in varying degrees outside of the mainstream. So if you include Monk in that list, then you've got to ask how you could compare their respective contributions to jazz. In other words, what do we have today that was the legacy of each of them? My point is that it's a little more difficult to formulate the lasting contributions of some than of others.

TM: Liberties! I mean Monk's playin' all this new stuff. Like the first time Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was performed, everybody hated it. Eventually, everybody borrows from Stravinsky—the film composers take the end of Firebird. So here's Monk doing his thing, and at the time only a few people dig it, and then all of a sudden it's accepted, and so we can do more things now. I mean, all those guys you mentioned expanded the language, right?

TL: Bud Powell was into bebop, but not quite typical. Monk and Powell admired each other, and they used their left hands with a guttural "drum" approach in similar ways not typical of bebop.

AAJ: Do you think Monk's music evolved over time, or stayed pretty much the same after the 1940s?

TM: Actually, I would say, no! It was ahead of its time from the beginning.

TL: Ben Shachter [saxophonist] has a good point about that. He teaches a course at Temple called "Styles and Analysis." One semester is Monk; another it's Coltrane, and he seems to make the point that Monk appeared to arrive on the scene almost fully formed, whereas Trane constantly re-invented himself, questioned what he was doing.

JM: Yeah, I agree with that.

TL: I'm sure Monk got better at what he did and refined it in his own way. But I wouldn't say he arrived at a drastically different aesthetic from where he began. Although people often talk about his space and his spareness, yet there are many recorded examples where he's playing at almost Tatum-eque speed. So you can't even stereotype that.

Thelonious MonkJM: On the Coltrane/Monk recording, he's playin' a lot of piano.

AAJ: I wanted to ask Tom specifically about Monk's piano playing. Some people, for example Leonard Bernstein, who felt Monk was a genius, didn't think much of him as a pianist.

TL: In my opinion, he was a great pianist. He understood the sympathetic vibrations of the piano. Vijay Iyer talks about that in a recent article. Monk knew things about the pedals, and the spacings of chords that triggered overtones in certain ways.

TM: Yeah, but could he have blown some Bach fugues off there?

TL: I don't know, and I probably don't care, but it's interesting that in Kelley's biography, he relates that Monk is playing some Chopin, and his sister tells him—that's adagio, that's supposed to be slow, and he says, "Yeah, but I wanna play it real fast." [Laughter] So, it's entirely possible he was a very good pianist. But I don't look at pianists as pianists. I look at whether or not they're musicians as such. The instrument is simply the means to the music, and in that respect, Monk is probably one of the greatest pianists.

AAJ: But playing an instrument, you have to master certain skills.

TL: Yes and no.

AAJ: When Monk was young, he was very talented on piano. Kelley notes that he had a teacher from Julliard who was himself a concert pianist, and said that in a few months, young Thelonious had already gone beyond what he was teaching.

TL: It depends on how you look at an instrument. If we're brainwashed by Eurocentric ideas about what it means to play an instrument—and I'm not putting down any of that music—I'm just saying there are diverse ways to play the same instrument.

TM: Yeah, but I like putting musicians in those different bags just to see what happens. Like, could Monk do this or that on the piano, just for information's sake. What is he about, and what is he not about?

AAJ: Tom has a really good point about the influence of Eurocentric concepts of music and musicians on our thinking about competence. One of Monk's achievements was to break through the Eurocentric tendency wherein jazz had lost some of its naturalism and roots. But getting back to the instrument itself, Tom, would you use Monk as a role model for teaching piano?

TL: OK, technically I would not want most students, unless they showed early signs of genius, I would not want them to emulate his physical way of playing piano, because they'd wind up with carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis. But for Monk, we're very grateful that he wasn't trained traditionally, because he might never have come up with what he did.

AAJ: But he did wild things like play with his elbows. Isn't that just a stunt?

TL: No, no. He's playing clusters. It's a sound.

AAJ: Do you play with your elbows?

TL: Sure, sometimes. It's just another way to get a sound.

AAJ: I don't know if [Vladimir] Horowitz would've played with his elbows.

TL: Well, if he would've been playing [classical composer Iannis] Xenakis, he would have.

Thelonious MonkAAJ: To change the topic, what do you think of Monk's choice of sidemen over the years. Like, some people think Charlie Rouse was a great choice, while others point to his shortcomings. Sonny Rollins, as always, was stunning when he worked with Monk. Do you think Monk chose good musicians to work with?

JM: Oh, absolutely. He was always after the best people that he felt would have some instinctive grasp of his music.

AAJ: If you listen to his recordings, do you think that they did grasp his intent?

JM: Absolutely. Rouse, and Frankie Dunlop, those guys were with him the longest. I know that Rouse said that on record dates you had to be on top all the time, because Monk will use the first or second take. So if you blow it, your mistake is gonna be on this record for eternity. Monk limited his repertoire to 10 or 12 songs in the later years, but his solos are always completely original.

AAJ: Which drummers did well with him?

JM: Shadow Wilson sounds great with him. Now, according to Kelley, he had drug problems, but you couldn't tell from those recordings.

TL: Shadow Wilson, Max Roach,Art Blakey. Who could be better?

AAJ: Jim, it goes without saying that Monk's rhythms are slightly off center. So do you as a drummer, go for those rhythms, or do you just play straight-ahead?

JM: I'm trying to make sounds that sound good with what these guys are doing. The best times I've had playing are with a handful of bands, and Monkadelphia is one of them, where you can have the tune running in your head, and then the rest of it is like you're in a playground. There's a way to be so inside what the group is doing that you naturally make the right choices.

TM: I always think of Jim as a guy who's really rhythmic. So there's always this undercurrent that I can play to. Micah Jones is more the guy who's layin' it down on bass.

JM: But he's playin' some serious counterpoint stuff a lot.

TL: Part of it is the era in which the music is played. When Monk was recording, the drums couldn't be doing what Monk was doing, or he himself wouldn't have been able to do it! But these days, when Jim plays, the sense of the beat is always there even though he's busy doing other stuff.

AAJ: Tom, do you try to hold back on the beat the way Monk did?

TL: I don't tend to do that. I kind of favor on top. On certain tempos, I may try to mix it up.

JM: That's where we're all simpatico as a group, because we all tend to play on the front side of the beat.

TL: And that would be completely different from Monk. But anyone of us at a given moment might play behind the beat.

Thelonious MonkJM: But that's for effect. Rhythm is like when you throw a rock into the water and get those concentric circles, that's like a metronome, and that's a given. But you can be on either side of it.

TL: Most of what we do is instinctual. We play in the moment.

AAJ: What you're saying is that, above and beyond this basic beat, there's a lot of elbow room in the way you guys use rhythm.

JM: If you hear Monk, no matter who's performing it, you know it's a Monk tune. Because not only his piano playing but his compositions were unique. Same with Wayne Shorter—no matter who plays one of his tunes, you know it's him. And the same with Michael Brecker. So the first time I heard Monk's tune "Evidence," I knew it was a Monk tune. His fingerprints are all over it.

TM: And a Monk tune will sometimes dictate playing looser also. As soon as a Monk tune comes up, musicians start playing differently.

TL: But like Kenny Werner one time played "Trinkle Tinkle" and somehow made it sound more like Bill Evans than Monk. Stylistically, as a player, you can choose to acknowledge or not acknowledge "Monk-isms." For example, his tune, "Ugly Beauty," even the title should dictate a certain kind of guttural beauty as opposed to pristine beauty, yet half the time when I play it, I'm lulled into a "pretty" mode instead of the guttural.

AAJ: Monk had a lot of that sensitive beauty—people often don't realize that side of him.

JM: "Reflections" is one of the best tunes ever.

AAJ: The same with "Ruby My Dear" and "Round Midnight." And he also loved to do other composer's ballads. Did anyone do a head count of Monk's own compositions?

TL: It used to be 68. Lately, it's more like 72 or 73.

JM: We've played all of them at least once.

Post a comment



Shop Amazon


All About Jazz needs your support

All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, shelter in place and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary effort that will help musicians now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the bottom right video ad). Thank you.

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.