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TS Monk: His Father's Voice

Chris M. Slawecki By

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The first thing that [everyone] notices, once you get past the sort of pristine sound of the recording, the sort of
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In November 1957, a stellar constellation of jazz royalty including Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie performed at Carnegie Hall, two performances in one night to benefit the Morningside Community Center in Harlem, NY. The performances were recorded for subsequent overseas broadcast on Voice of America radio. The Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane, featuring drummer Shadow Wilson and bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, also appeared early in the bill.

In January 2005, Larry Applebaum, jazz specialist at the Library of Congress, was having a typical day at the office, attending to his daily routine of digitally transferring the Library's collection to further its preservation. He discovered some tapes labeled "sp. Event 11/29/57 carnegie jazz concert (#1)." One of these tapes was simply marked "T. Monk."

On September 27 2005, Blue Note Records, for whom Monk recorded his first sessions as a leader, and Thelonious Records will release both Monk performances on a single CD, digitally restored from this tape, as Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall.

This new release thankfully provides new music history AND excellent new music. Monk begins the opening ballad "Monk's Mood" alone then beckons in just Coltrane, encouraging the saxophonist to wade in his rippling musical water throughout what is essentially an eight-minute saxophone/piano duet.

In "Crepuscle with Nellie" Monk spans classic stride and modern piano with his left and right hands, especially his unaccompanied introduction that shines bold and brilliant, while 'Trane almost completely lays out. Seemingly energized by this respite, Coltrane runs double-time into the next tune to crunch up "Nutty."

From the rhythm section, Wilson tap dances across his cymbals in the versions of "Epistrophy" that close each set and Abdul-Malik lays down a bottom strong and deep all the while darting around Monk's left hand, no small feat considering the pianist's evident delight in dropping rhythmic depth-charge bombs like Art Blakey on a bass drum.

Monk's legendary musical sense of humor has preserved intact, especially in his sense of rhythm. His percussive piano rolls in "Bye-ya," which opens the second set, sound like tumbling xylophones and set up 'Trane to shoot up emotive fireworks of red hot blue. Monk's wit also refracts through "Blue Monk," flattening out the beat in the introduction and nearly chortling through a passage near the middle of his mid-song spotlight where every blessed note he plays "sounds wrong." Coltrane's fierce playing in "Blue Monk" shows him well on his way to becoming Monk's instrumental contemporary.

"No one sounds like the two of these guys, I mean absolutely no one. These are two very, very special players," says TS Monk, jazz drummer, jazz educator, chairman of the Monk Institute, and the pianist's son.

"I had always had a feeling that someone had documented some part of this relationship with John Coltrane. I never dreamed, I must say, that the United States government actually documented it."

In this extensive interview with AAJ, Monk speaks about the opportunity to release his father's "new record" on his own Thelonious label and the music made by one of the most historically important (and under-recorded) modern jazz bands.

AAJ: Did you get to interact with John's son Ravi during the restorative or production process, to work together like your fathers did?

TSM: Actually, the restoration I sort of handled because, at the know, this thing has been on such a terribly fast track and all last month Ravi was actually out on the road with McCoy Tyner. So he wasn't able to actually be in the studio with me to actually do the restoration of the tape. But we were in close contact the whole time, talking about it, and we were able to get together before he left for Europe to discuss what we wanted it to sound like at the end of the day. He did have input into it.

AAJ: Unless I am miscalculating, you would have been around eight years old at the time of this performance...

TSM: I was approaching my seventh birthday.

AAJ: you have any memories of any of this time or this period?

TSM: Sure. Absolutely. First of all, I am pretty sure I was at the concert myself because my father used to take me to all his concerts. And I sort of remember once he gave a concert at Carnegie Hall where I had actually fallen asleep by the time my father came out. I'm pretty sure I was at the concert.

But in terms of that particular period of my life, you know, Thelonious was very much a family guy, so he did a lot of things at home and he took the family with him to quite a lot of places. So I was in the clubs virtually all the time; I missed a lot of school because I was in clubs, even at that early age.

I do recall, very vividly: We were living at 243 West 63rd Street, which is the famous apartment where Thelonious, quote, "had his piano in the kitchen." Of course, what people don't understand is, when you're living in low-income, limited space: This room is the kitchen, it's also the family room, it's also the dining know, it's everything. It was a tiny, tiny little two-room apartment and the piano was in the third room, which is all there was, the third room and the bathroom.

At that time I was just getting into second or third grade, something like that; my sister was three. So I was spending a lot of time home, and I remember this guy coming to the house every day. In retrospect, I know it must have been for several months, but for me it seemed like several years at the time. This guy was at the house every day. And my father never called him, "John," he always called him "Coltrane." And it was almost like "Coltrane!" with an exclamation on it—like, "Coltrane! Coltrane! Coltrane!"

Having been a jazz musician for quite a while now and so involved in education, what I was witness to was the mentoring process. But at the time it was just that this guy was coming to the house every day and it seemed, although I didn't know the word at the time, that it was very intense. My father was, like, ON this guy, you know? But it was "Daddy," so "Daddy was on this guy," and he was telling him, "Man, you can do this" and "Come on, you can do that." I remember this very intense relationship with this young cat Coltrane.

At the time, my father was not on my radar artistically, of course. I really didn't know what they were doing. I do remember, shortly after that, when Coltrane went out on his own, it might have been on his first album when he was talking in the liner notes about how profoundly Monk had affected him. Now, when I look back at the history, I realize so many things about the relationship that I was a witness to but I did not know what they were at the time: The mentoring process, the encouragement, the really pushing him out to get his own band.

I remember that everybody talked about how Thelonious was telling him, "You don't need to go back to Miles' band, you know." The family was very tuned in to Thelonious and I had an enormous number of older first cousins on both my mother's and my father's side who were all teenagers at the time, so they were very locked into what "Uncle Thelonious" was doing. So from THEIR chatter about what was going on, I could sort of glean that this guy was really important to Daddy.

And I remember, also very distinctly, a decade later in '67 when Coltrane died and my father really flipped out. At that time, although I knew who Coltrane was and I knew who my father was—they were on my radar—the RELATIONSHIP was not on my radar. I didn't know how profoundly locked into each other these two guys had become. Again, now, being a musician, I know how devastating it is to lose a peer that you really play with, that you KNOW, because I've lost one or two and I know what that feels like. I can't imagine what it feels like when that person is the person that you've been trying to pass the baton to. Now I know why he flipped out when John Coltrane died.

But I do very distinctly remember the time in the house. It was a very exciting time in the house. I remember them being down at the Five Spot and I would hear the stories about him shouting out Coltrane's name and all that kind of stuff. So it was a good time. I do remember the period and I do remember him being in the house—as I clearly remember Horace Silver and Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis and Bud Powell, particularly. The three guys that Thelonious really sat down with and really mentored were Bud Powell, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.


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