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The Loneliest Monk

Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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This article was first published in August 2005.

This is an apocryphal story. During Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, he was doing an interview with supposed intellectual, Tabitha Soren of MTV. Soren asked him if there was anything he dreamt of doing. Clinton replied that he had always wanted to play sax with Thelonious Monk. Soren screwed on her best smart-girl face and replied, "And who was the loneliest monk?"

At the current rate of production, scientists believe that the current U.S. supply of morons will increase despite the proliferation of information technologies. This is not including the number of dolts, dinks, dumbasses, gits, nitwits, and just plain fools out there. Concurrently, the production of geniuses in this country has remained fairly stagnate since the introduction of MTV in the early eighties (I was born in 1967, before the proliferation of cable TV). What does this mean to you, the Average American? It means that every day, the Moron Majority causes the greatest figures in jazz history like Thelonious Monk to become just a bit more obscure while elevating their own empty-headed ilk like pop stars and professional wrestlers to fleeting fifteen minute blocks of godlike status.

Did I sound a little harsh there? I apologize. As I write this, Lent has only just ended and it will take a while for enough alcohol to get into my system to make me a decent human being again.

So let's enjoy this moment while it lasts.

Thelonious Sphere Monk (Sphere the monk, sphoil the thelonious, I always say* ) was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, on October 10, 1917. Moving to New York at the age of five, and finding not many career opportunities for a five year-old named Thelonious, he decided to become an eccentric genius whose demanding and completely unique compositions remain to this day a standard by which the very best of jazz can be measured. Kids had goals back then, in the days before Ritalin-soaked theories of progressive education.

Anyway.

Monk began taking piano lessons around the age of 12, and within a couple of years was playing rent parties in Harlem and accompanying his mother's singing at church. At the age of 13, Monk entered and won the weekly amateur show at the Apollo so often that he was eventually barred from competing. By the age of 19, he was the house pianist at Minton's Playhouse (and the house dressing was a roasted garlic vinaigrette. This may or may not come into play later on, but I'd rather err to the side of caution), along with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Together, working mostly at nights with bits of leftover stuff they found lying around, they invented a style of jazz known to this day as BeBop.

In the forties, New York was lousy with jazz, mostly of the big band variety. Every streetcorner featured its own band, and anyone who could play an instrument was expected to play in a group much like today's equivalent of every high school guitarist who can play Enter Sandman being expected to join a band. This led not only to an excess of musicians, but an absolute glut of homogenous middle-of-the-road big band music. Imagine a time where every single club features a high school metal band playing Crazy Train.

After hours at many clubs, musicians would gather for loose jam sessions. Minton's was no different. But Gillespie, Parker and Monk grew frustrated with the mediocre talent dragging down the level of their get-togethers. They began adding unusual chords and breakneck changes, weeding out all but the heartiest of the bunch. At first just trying to leave their lesser brethren behind, they soon found their inventions gaining ground and becoming an entirely new form of jazz. Gillespie and Parker are widely credited as the innovators of BeBop, with Monk (remember him, the subject of the article?) considered "the midwife of BeBop;" he was present at the birth, but the baby doesn't look anything like him.

Such as that is.

In 1951, Monk was falsely imprisoned (it was a fake prison, made of Styrofoam bricks and licorice bars) for narcotics possession, after being Busted while Hanging Out with a Brother who was Holding and refusing to Rat Out or Drop the Dime on the Dude. And this abbreviated tribute to George Ade was made possible by the President's Council on Obscure Humorists and the International Brotherhood of Wiseacres and Smartasses, Local 1264.

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