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 time...you 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: ...do 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 room...you 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.

AAJ: As I listened to the CD in preparing my notes for the review, I kept noticing the words "joyous" and "joyful." I don't know that I ever heard your father sound so happy playing with someone.

TSM: That's why this is going to be the biggest-selling record that he ever made. Because EVERYONE who has listened to this recording—and I can say with a fair amount of confidence that at least sixty or seventy percent of the people who have heard this recording so far, above and beyond being "jazz people," they really know who Thelonious Monk is, they are really acquainted with all his recordings, and every single person—EVERY SINGLE PERSON bar none—has said exactly the same thing: They never heard Thelonious play like this. The only people who have not said this are a couple of the older folks that I know, like in my family, who were really on the scene when Thelonious was really in his stride. Most of the people listening today are a hair too young; they're primarily familiar with recordings that Thelonious did in the studio or a few live recordings that have been out there. But this recording, for ME, and I'm his SON, all thirty-three years of my life I was up close and personal to this guy until he left us—I had never heard him play like this.

When I was first listening to this recording, I have to tell you very frankly that for the first time I heard the Thelonious Monk of legend. The Thelonious Monk that, when an older person, someone in their late sixties, maybe one of these writers like Ira Gitler or Morgenstern or somebody like that, who really heard Thelonious in the 1940s and early '50s, the way their eyes light up when they talk about going to hear Thelonious Monk at Minton's or Thelonious Monk at La Boheme in 1952 or something like that: I now understand exactly what they're talking about!

And it's remarkable because, even having not heard anything like this, Thelonious was STILL one of the top three jazz musicians of all time! So with this added to it, his stock is going to rise on so many levels as a result of this recording. I'm so delighted, more than anything, for Thelonious and John Coltrane, because this recording is sort of a rosetta stone for these cats in modern jazz.

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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