TS Monk: His Father

Chris M. Slawecki By

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It is unbelievable that among a bunch of staff engineers, this particular engineer just happened to be on duty this particular day, when this particular bunch of tapes came through the National Archives on their way to never-never land, never to be heard from again.
Part 1 | Part 2

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: Do you remember your first impression, the first time you heard the first music on this new release?

TSM: I get this recording, I throw it in the machine. Here comes "Monk's Mood with this almost ethereal introduction, interweaving Thelonious and John Coltrane, and I say to myself, "Okay, this must be the second half of the show. And then I look at the data and realize that, no, this is the first half of the show.

I'm a performer, I perform at all the major jazz festivals, I perform all over the world year round. I know when I'm on a big show that I've really got to buff it up and get it together because the people coming behind me are big time. I know when I'm the headliner that I can relax a little more, throw my thing out there and ease it on you.

So here's the show: It's Carnegie Hall. The opening act is Sonny Rollins, his debut as a leader by the way. The second act is Thelonious Monk, who is followed by the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, Billie Holiday, and the Ray Charles Orchestra. Now, that's some big, big guns coming behind Thelonious Monk, right? Thelonious Monk—and it's so much like my Daddy, like the guy I knew as "Daddy —decides two things: Number one, he's got complete confidence in a twenty-eight year old, twenty-nine year old John Coltrane. Complete confidence in him, illustrated in the fact that, unlike anybody that I've ever seen or I've ever heard, and unlike anything I've ever done, Thelonious Monk decided to start his concert with a ballad. As you know, this was a big show. None of the people on this bill got into Carnegie Hall on a regular basis. Whether it was a benefit or a regularly promoted concert, this was a big big deal. And he has enough confidence in John Coltrane to start this concert, man, with a ballad.

It did exactly what the title of his tune said it was going to do: It created "Monk's Mood. You can hear it in the room. When you listen to this concert, I say that I can't believe that anyone proceeded or followed these guys. It sounds like a standalone performance. When you listen to the performance, the way it was laid out logistically...because I'm tellin' you, man, when you open THAT show, you open with your baddest stuff, because you've got to make a good impression on everyone in the room so that they'll at least remember you until the Ray Charles Orchestra comes out!

I can't think of anybody who would have the nerve to start a concert like that with a ballad. But I know that my father always said, "You've got to do what everybody else is NOT doing. So he did that and to me that showed enormous confidence in his music. As a musician who uses younger cats, if I use a cat fifteen, twenty years younger than me, I'm sort of taking the leadership, I'll make sure that we get off on the right foot. He didn't do that. He just handed it to this young cat and said, "I know you know this. Play the right shit.

I know that's exactly how my father thought of it. That's fantastic. There are so many internal issues that are clarified about Thelonious Monk.

AAJ: This new recording also represents a new milestone in the career of Coltrane, too, doesn't it?

TSM: Of course the biggest issue for John Coltrane is connecting the dots. I was old enough in 1962, '63, '64, to know that My Favorite Things was a tremendously important recording, and also to know that I didn't know what the hell he was playing on A Love Supreme. But I also remember very clearly - because I was sensitive because of my pedigree—to the fact that there were a lot of people talking about the fact that John Coltrane had gone crazy. They didn't understand how this guy, who had seemed so orderly and so under control with Miles Davis, had become this guy playing sheets of music and sheets of sound and all of that. The natural reaction was, "Well, John Coltrane's gone crazy.

But John Coltrane had not gone crazy. John Coltrane HAD run into Thelonious Monk. And Thelonious Monk unlocked the door for him to go to a place. And thank God that he went there because a lot of tenor players would not be playing a lot of stuff had he not gone there. For those people who didn't understand how this guy could play what he played on "So What and then play what he played on "Ascension, this recording connects the dots. It validates what we who know him always knew about John Coltrane: That he is of the tradition and he is absolutely part of the continuum and there are no glitches.

Just as Miles Davis: I remember the moniker for Miles was "a traitor —when he came out with On the Corner: "Oh, Miles is a traitor. "A traitor, no less! It looks to me like Miles Davis is absolutely locked into the prime directive for ALL jazz musicians, which is "Do your OWN thing and do something different! And I know that was the prime directive he got from Thelonious Monk every single day, and I never EVER heard Thelonious say that John Coltrane was crazy or that Miles Davis was a traitor.

AAJ: Knowing what you know about your father's taste, what do you think would have pleased him the most about this new release?

TSM: Probably the overall sound of the group. Thelonious was very democratic so he'd be talking about how good Coltrane sounds, because Coltrane was a young cat. In today's nomenclature, we clearly would call Coltrane at that age "a young lion. However, listening to John Coltrane at that age, a lot of people will now know what "a young lion truly is!

I think that, as a bandleader, listening to John Coltrane navigate music that most guys couldn't navigate at all—and the only guys that COULD navigate it were the likes of Sonny Rollins and Johnny Griffin and cats like that, the very very cream of the crop—I would be just grinnin' ear-to-ear to myself, about how I got this young cat and he is hooked up and he is in the zone and he is playing MY music and he's playing it better than anybody ever played it before. That's a win-win-win situation as a bandleader, as a mentor, and just as an artist out there plying your craft.

AAJ: Do you have your own children? What is their impression, do you think, of "Grandpop and his music ?

TSM: My son is seventeen and my daughter is nineteen. He's just beginning to really come on their radar because...you know, when I was a kid, my father was sort of two things: He was sort of this famous musician and he was this very special sort of guy within the jazz community itself, but he was famous, people knew who he was. But at that point he wasn't part of pop culture: They hadn't made stamps for him, they weren't naming streets after him, nothing like that. So for them it's been sort of a different reality Grandpa, because Grandpa's so gigantic when they woke up, like an institution.

They couldn't feel it, sort of like how I couldn't feel John Coltrane's importance when I was a kid. It's just now...my daughter went away to her first year of college and all of a sudden it's the first time she's sort of been confronted with the attention from people in the black history department and people in the music department, everybody knows that her grandfather is Thelonious Monk and all that kind of thing. So it's really beginning to sink in.

I thought it was best to not tell them how important he was, just let them grow up around him. I mean, they see him everywhere—they see the stamps and they hear the president mentioning his name. My son has clearly realized that there's absolutely no place on the planet earth he can go and say "My name is Thelonious Monk without someone asking him if they are not related. That's sort of what's happening with them. They know that it's important but substantively they haven't quite gotten it yet because that's a hard thing to get. You need to listen to the music for awhile, for a number of years, because he's considered SO important.

They can sort of understand why he's FAMOUS: he made a lot of records so he was an entertainer. But they're just beginning to understand why he's IMPORTANT, why he's not quite like all the other jazz guys that they see. They've noticed that there's something about Granddaddy and it seems Miles Davis and there's about four names that seem to be super-duper special no matter where you go, and Granddaddy is one of those guys. I don't pressure them because discovering my father on my own was the best thing that ever happened to me.

AAJ: This must have been such a rewarding process for you as Thelonious Monk's son.

TSM: Let me tell you something, man. The fact that this record is on my label, on Thelonious Records, distributed by Blue Note, is sort of magical timing. It is unbelievable that among a bunch of staff engineers, this particular engineer just happened to be on duty this particular day, when this particular bunch of tapes came through the National Archives on their way to never-never land, never to be heard from again.

I've been thinking about a lot of guys on their level that I knew personally, and I know a lot of their personal history, and these are the two guys with no baggage. These are the only two guys where, you mention the name "Thelonious Monk and people say, "Yeah, man: integrity, honesty, straight-ahead, nicest guy in the world. You mention John Coltrane, it's the same rap. Nothing about how he was nasty or uncooperative. None of that shit.

It's so timely, and these are two guys that were incredibly maligned by the critics. Thelonious, from the day he showed up, really, until the day he died, THEN all the critics got on board with Thelonious Monk. John Coltrane, the critics turned on him post-Miles, it was heinous. So for these guys to re-emerge and for this recording to re-emerge, and it just happened to be a night they played at Carnegie Hall.

AAJ: What type of message do you think this new recording will send to today's jazz scene?

TSM: I emphasize this to young musicians, "Remember when you listen to this recording that they were playing for no money. All these young cats, all the time, they think they're playing so much shit and they're always talking about, "I need more money, I need more money. They were playing on this level, this music, for no money at all. It was a benefit. So this was about cats who were really locked into the music. For real.

All this stuff, to me, it doesn't seem by accident. That Blue Note Records is still around. That I happened to be hanging out at Cecil Brooks III's club in New Jersey where I met DXT, who's the guy who does all the electronic stuff for Herbie, and he did an absolutely incredible job of restoring this tape. All of these things...this is really not about me, this is not about Thelonious Records, this is not about Blue Note. This is really about Thelonious and John Coltrane and the history of western music.

AAJ: It does seem like more than mere luck or coincidence, doesn't it?

TSM: This was SUPPOSED to get out. It was supposed to get out. That's why it just didn't get into the national archives. It's been sitting around for forty-eight years and when it was time for it to be put in a tomb, it didn't go. That can't be just by pure luck. It's because of who it is and because it is as important as it is. I feel like, for all of us - you, writing about it; me, having the wherewithal to get together with the Coltrane family and put a great deal together; all the people who have been involved - this is actually bigger than all of us, and that's why we all know that we'd just like to be part of sending this one on its way to the world. Because this is the record that we all know is going to be here after we're all dead and gone, and you don't get an opportunity to touch something like this very often.

I am profoundly moved that this record fell into my hands. THIS record?!? It is so completely over the top.

Above and beyond it pleasing Monk fans and jazz aficionados and Coltrane fans and that sort of thing, I think it is going to reenergize the entire jazz community on the creative side. More than anything else, what these two guys were doing on this record, which just sits out in bold relief, is that they were being themselves. They were being themselves in a way that all of us who play this music want to be ourselves like that. And we all talk about it, but here we see the cats who were really really able to do that.

This is the kind of recording that is going to slap a whole bunch of tenor players who are trying to play like Coltrane, it will slap them in the face and say, "Stop doing that. Just stop doing that because it cannot be done. Find your OWN voice. And that's a message that has not been trumpeted to the jazz community big time in a long time. Find your own voice. It's gotten to the point where the record companies have forgotten that. Once the record companies forget something like that, we're all lost. That's why everybody's constantly walking around saying, "Man, I don't hear anything new. Well, you've got kids running around transcribing Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and playing them back verbatim, so you don't hear anything new on the record.

That whole thing, what my father was yelling at John Coltrane and yelling at Miles Davis and what they were all yelling at each other, at the top of their voice, all through the thirties, forties, fifties and into the sixties, was "Play your own shit. And that's what you're hearing on this recording. You say, "Man, that's Monk being Monk! And that's Coltrane being Coltrane! That is absolutely awesome. We haven't seen that in a long, long time.

Photo Credit
Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane by Don Schlitten


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