Monkadelphia: All Monk, All the Time

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.



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