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TS Monk: His Father's Voice

Chris M. Slawecki By

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AAJ: It is almost like discovering thirty new Psalms that were never published in the Bible.

TSM: Yeah! Yeah! This answers so many questions! The first thing that I think anybody notices, once you get past the sort of pristine sound of the recording, the sort of "today sound" of the recording, is the clarity of Thelonious' harmonics. We all know how deep his harmonics are—they're studied all over the world. But I submit that upon this recording there are a lot of major jazz educators and musicologists that are going to have to again retool their assessment of Thelonious Monk. There are things I am hearing that I am sure you are hearing, that everybody else is hearing, about the chords and the clusters that he plays that, with all the technology he had through the years he was recording at CBS, with all the many many recordings that we have heard: I have simply never heard this clarity of harmonics from Thelonious. Listening to it, I say, "Oh. The man really did know more harmony than any other human being that ever lived."

I felt that way and I've discussed that with so many musicians who felt that way but after listening to this, there's no doubt in my mind: His mastery of western harmony is beyond belief. And to be able to do it spontaneously, extemporaneously, is completely over the top. The issue of Thelonious' technique is sort of laid to rest, I mean it gets buried eighteen feet down! Which goes to the issue where you began, of the joy that you hear. I had a person say the other night, a real Monk fan, young lady, she came to the house and she listened to the recording. "Oh, man, this sounds like Monk is showing off on this! I have never heard him play like this, to play this much stuff, this clear and this joyful and it makes so much sense." If that was all I heard in this recording, it would be wonderful for Thelonious.

For John Coltrane, there are so many things that I now see, having been chairman of the Monk Institute for twenty years now, understanding exactly what jazz education is all about in the institutional setting and in the streets. I say, "Man, this guy was waiting for this relationship."

AAJ: When I said "joyous" before: This new album gave me a picture of your father sitting at the piano, looking around and smiling, "Not only have I made it to Carnegie Hall—I'm with a cat who gets it!"

TSM: Who ABSOLUTELY gets it! I did an interview yesterday and the reporter was going to interview Sonny Rollins after me, so they were asking me about Thelonious and Sonny Rollins and Thelonious and Coltrane. I was saying that I think what made the relationship with Coltrane truly unique is that when you talk about the tenor saxophone, there are really two schools today for tenor saxophone: Either a cat plays out of the Coltrane school or he plays out of the Sonny Rollins school. And they're both valid and equal, I believe.

The difference, though, is that, in terms of Thelonious' music, when I listen to Sonny Rollins with Thelonious, which was another match made in heaven, what I heard from Sonny Rollins' saxophone itself was sort of a history of the tenor saxophone. Clearly, when I listen to John Coltrane, this was a NEW sound, a different kind of sound for the tenor saxophone. I think that this new, different kind of sound was more suited to where Thelonious' music was actually going, as opposed to what it was, where it had been. Because Thelonious' music had always been "leaning forward."

So when I listen to Coltrane...take a composition like "Epistrophy." Clearly this is leaning toward and implying the whole modal thing that was to come in the music that John Coltrane led the charge with. In order to do that, with this new sound for the tenor saxophone, he needed some new music. That's what Thelonious brought to the table for John Coltrane: The music that was the doorway to where jazz and the tenor saxophone were going to go. It was sort of a different mission from the mission with Sonny Rollins. Sonny Rollins, to me, and I'm not just talking about Sonny, I'm talking about Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon, I'm talking about all those cats who played with Thelonious up until John Coltrane, was, to me, it was what the music WAS.

This is what it IS. This is what Monk IS, with Coltrane: A new kind of tone, and a new kind of way of hearing improvisational lines that was far less bebop than his peers and predecessors. Thelonious, although he had been monikered "The High Priest of Bebop," was never really a bebopper. He was one of the architects of bebop, but so was Dizzy and so was Bird. Now Bird died very very young so we don't know where Bird would have gone, but Bird had changed the way we think of improvisational melody, the way we think of melody in general for Western music in the 20th century. We don't know where he was going to take that. But clearly Dizzy gave us the entire Afro-Cuban jazz, Latin genre. And Thelonious, although he was like the "High Priest of Bebop" and Dizzy was like the archibishop and Bird was like the king, Thelonious went on to become the Father of MODERN Jazz. And that's because of the MUSIC that he had. His MUSIC released everybody. He was a very iconoclastic guy, man. He changed the way that people looked at composition.

AAJ: He is also one of those rare artists where you cannot separate Monk the pianist from Monk the composer.

TSM: No, you can't. You absolutely can not. But there are some internals...if you don't mind me just talking...(laughs)...there are some internals to this recording that I would really like to tell you about, that I see.


L-R: John Coltrane, Shadow Wilson, Thelonious Monk, Ahmed Abdul-Malik At The Five Spot Cafe, New York City, 1957

AAJ: Well, then...would you like to discuss the internals that you see on this new album?

TSM: I would start with: After John Coltrane, history tells us that Thelonious chose the quartet as his ensemble of preference. He had done it a little bit but he had been doing trios and octets and all kinds of things. But after John Coltrane, it was quartet from then on. So there was something about that relationship with John Coltrane that made him realize that this particular ensemble configuration was the perfect vehicle for Thelonious. And John Coltrane, after Thelonious Monk, chose the quartet as his preferred ensemble configuration, to send his message. So that was a powerful message right there, particularly when you consider that Coltrane came out of a heavy duty quintet, sextet kind of thing.

After John Coltrane, the next cat Thelonious really settled on was Charlie Rouse. Charlie Rouse was not out of that traditional tenor saxophone mold. What they played, the sound that Charlie Rouse got, the tone of Charlie Rouse's tenor saxophone, is like the tone of John Coltrane. So Thelonious obviously fell in love with that tone and felt that that particular tone conveyed his melodies better than any other, because he laid with that for the rest of his career.

Now, John Coltrane gets a quartet. This is the guy that was steeped in the likes of Wynton Kelly and Red Garland, but he doesn't go out and get one of the new young proponents—a Walter Davis Jr., somebody like that, a proponent of that sound—he goes out and gets McCoy Tyner and Tommy Flanagan, who don't play the standard rhythms, that standard sort of bebop piano that we got from Red Garland and those guys. So obviously what John Coltrane heard in the Monk quartet affected him profoundly.

AAJ: Has the new record impacted you as a drummer, too?

TSM: You can go even a step further: I was sitting with Cecil Brooks III and Michael Carvin; we were listening to the recording, and it was, for all of us, our first chance to really hear Shadow Wilson playing out. Now dig this: Until I heard this recording, I, Ben Riley, and every other drummer after Frankie Dunlop, sort of played Monk with a Frankie Dunlop flavor. Because we all agreed that Frankie Dunlop was the perfect match with Monk. But I listened to this recording and I realized that Frankie Dunlop was on the scene, he was listening—Frankie Dunlop was playing Shadow Wilson, who Thelonious always said was his favorite drummer. So I find that the influence that I thought was coming from Frankie Dunlop was coming from Shadow Wilson.

Because all of a sudden, the way that Thelonious Monk's band swings with Shadow Wilson is different from Roy Haynes, it's different from Max Roach, it's different from Art Blakey. It's the patented swing that we're all familiar with, from Thelonious Monk.

If you look over at John Coltrane: He came out of a heavy, heavy dose of the Jimmy Cobbs of the world, the Philly Joe Joneses, but what does Shadow Wilson have that was different from Max Roach and Art Blakey and all the rest of those cats that had preceded him? It was that little kind of upbeat swing, that little sort of high-stepping, dancing kind of thing. It was a sound on the ride cymbal: Instead of doing "ding-da-ding, ding-da-ding", it went "ding-da-ding, ding-da-ding". John Coltrane doesn't go get a Philly Joe Jones kind of a cat, he doesn't go get a Jimmy Cobb-sounding cat, he goes gets this young cat named Elvin Jones. Who plays with what? An upbeat swing!

So the influences back and forth were unbelievable. AND you're talking about two guys, one mentoring the other, that actually moved the music itself. This recording is telling us that, as the musicians had always said, Monk's influence was absolutely profound. It was the most powerful influence in modern jazz on so many different levels. And on John Coltrane...man, it opened him wide up. When I listen to John Coltrane here and know that he had come from Miles' band, and now I listen to "So What?" or "Milestones," I say, "Damn, he was in a straitjacket." That's John Coltrane—you NEVER think of John Coltrane in a straitjacket, he's playing all over the place. But compared to what he was doing with Monk, he sounds like he was in a straitjacket. So I am saying, "Whoa. This is why Coltrane was coming to the house every day." Because this music was opening him wide up.

Continue: Part 2

Photo Credit
Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane by Don Schlitten

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