T.S. Monk Speaks Out

Franz A. Matzner By

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I'm the next generation. I'm mixed up. I'm schizophrenic. I want to do it all at the same time.
T.S. Monk is a voluble speaker. Which stands to reason since he is also an exceptionally engaged man. Not only does Monk have a new release due this August, Higher Ground , he will also launch his own label, Thelonious Records, open his father's archives, continue in his capacity as chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute, and proceed with his work on a Broadway play.

T.S. Monk has been on the scene for quite some time, working first within the straight ahead jazz environment. He then spent several years in the Funk and R & B arena before returning to jazz where he made an immediate splash with the tribute recording Monk on Monk. In addition, he has kept a touring band together for over a decade.

T.S. not only has a lot to say, he says it freely, with great humor, excitement, and joy. It is a rare treat to speak with someone as forthcoming, insightful, and exuberant. The long conversation we had via cell phone covered many topics including his current projects, his childhood, jazz history, various anecdotes, and much more. Having taken place over a week ago now, the conversation still has me thinking, smiling'and laughing.

All About Jazz: You've got a lot going on. There's the new album, the Thelonious Monk archives, the new label, and I've just heard about a Broadway play?

T.S. Monk: The Broadway thing! Well, it actually started two years ago. I've been working with some people for about two years on a musical featuring Thelonious's music and the working title is 'Brilliant Corners'. In the process of doing that we've become a little bogged down with the writer. Not the musical writer, the scriptwriter. Broadway's difficult man! And with an artist like Thelonious, it's not quite as simple as'it's not quite the Benny Goodman Story'so it's been difficult. But in the process, I ran into a gentleman by the name of Hinton Battle. If you're not familiar with him, he won a Tony for Tap Dance Kid , and Little Miss Saigon.

In fact, I think not only is he the only African-American to win three Tonys, he's the only male to win three Tonys on Broadway. The third one is for something years ago, I'm not sure which. I ran into him because he's a friend of one of my cousin's and we got to talking. He always had an interest in Thelonious's music, and we talked some more, and next thing I know we we're putting together a production. So right now we're in the early stages of a production called, 'Monk and Battles' Hinton is doing the choreography and this guy who just won a Tony himself for Swing, Harold Wheeler'he just might be the most successful musical director over the last decade in Broadway'I think he's gotten two or three in a row'he's doing the music. It's going to be a collaboration of Monk and dance'A lot of people are not familiar with early Thelonious Monk.

They don't know that Thelonious grew up in the era when if you were a young musician'it didn't matter if you were a jazz musician or not'how did you earn a living? You played dances. I think that to a great degree that is the reason that the music which came out of the Be-boppers and the modern jazz players has always been so rhythmically'swinging! It's because it was all dance music, initially, and the grooves, the general ambience of the music was centered on dance until the dance floors were closed-off in the late forties and early fifties and we all started sitting and drinking and listening to the music instead of dancing. So this has become a lot of fun. There's a great deal of interest among the dancers because they don't get an opportunity to interact with music, particularly music as stylized as Thelonious's. He's a rare artist, period. So this is a great opportunity, Hinton feels'and I feel'he's coming up with some great stuff! I think it's going to be a whole lot of fun. Father would never believe it! But then, he would never believe his face is on a stamp...[or that] he's got a star on the Hollywood walk along with Bob Hope and all those people. You know, the skies the limit for Thelonious and I'm very excited about this particular project.

AAJ: That's very interesting. Just like you said, there seem to be so many myths about Monk's career'probably many more which you could tell me about than I can image'but particularly that early period. There's always this idea that he was totally obscure and unknown until Be-bop came along, that all the music took place alone in the dark at the back of Minton's.

TM: No, no, it's funny because I was looking at some pictures the other day of my father at a fund raiser with Ed Sullivan in a tuxedo, things like that. A lot of things that all artists do in the early parts of their careers that no one pays attention to'for anybody'you know?(laughing) We tend to lock into people when they come up on our radar and assume that's who they are. So for most people Thelonious is this austere, somewhat aloof figure. That unapproachable, irascible, and all that kind of stuff. Hey, man, he was a young guy out there trying to get over for a lot of years, man, and that involves doing a whole lot of things that every jazz musician today whose in the position to have a gig knows they had to do too' Jackie McLean was telling me about when he was sixteen years old. He had met Thelonious the year before when he was fifteen years old and he had a wedding to do, and he didn't have a pianist so he called his best friend at the time, a young drummer who was playing with Thelonious'Arthur Taylor'so he called AT and says, 'Man, I really need a pianist for this gig. I'm really stuck, stuckstuckstuck' and AT says, 'Well, call Monk!' And Jackie looks at him and says, 'What are you crazy? Whaddya mean call Monk? Call Thelonious Monk? This is a wedding.' And AT said, 'You know what, man? Thelonious is a musician who loves to play the music, and if he digs you it doesn't matter what kind of gig it is. It's music, right? Call him.' And Jackie McLean called him and they did that wedding.

AAJ: The They-Come-Out-of-Nowhere phenomenon. That's what I call it. Every artist has to come out of nowhere. That's the way Americans like it. You bust your ass for years, and you're doing this and that, and finally you get some recognition and suddenly it's 'First Time Writer' or whatever. No, no, you've been doing this all your life.


TM: It's amazing.

AAJ: You're obviously very involved with your father's music. Some people would have gone a very different way, tried to distance themselves from it and I'm wondering'

TM: How did that happen? Well, I'll tell you. First of all, Thelonious'as were all of his friends, despite this very, very, gloomy, dark sort of gothic reality that has been created by back issues of down beat magazine, critics, and writers who couldn't get near any of these guys'all I remember my friends doing when he was with Miles, or Dizzy or Art, do you know what they were doing when they weren't playing? They were laughing and joking just like all the musicians you know. When they ain't playing, they're like children! Cracking jokes and laughing at each other, and talking about all kinds of silly shit. So it was a lot of fun for me.

Maybe that's what's unusual because Thelonious had me and my sister around all the time. See he liked me to be with him when he was with his boys. He liked to have the crew and his family together at the same time. So I didn't have anything but a good time. For me, remembering my father whether I'm remembering him musically'from playing with him'or just as dad, I always remember a lot of fun. A lot of laughing. A lot of joking. I don't remember a whole lot of downtime. This serious guy that people talk about, 'Well you don't say anything to Monk.' I don't even know who people are talking about. So for me, this is a ridiculous continuation of a story that's so much fun! Nobody has the right to have a story like this to talk about for an entire lifetime. I do! It's a great gift. For me, demystifying him for people, telling people what he was really like, that shit is a whole lot of fun because Thelonious has been elevated to the highest level you can be on this planet. I mean, when people say, 'This guy, we want to hear him for the next who knows how many hundred years.' That's reserved for the Beethovens, the Duke Ellingtons, maybe for the Stevie Wonders and Paul McCartneys, and the Thelonious Monks. It's a very small group of people. And even right now, some of the people that I mentioned that are my contemporaries, I don't really know for sure if people will be listening to the Beatles two hundred years from now. But I'm pretty sure they'll be listening to Thelonious Monk because he got into people's bones, man. It's really freaky.

I watched the whole process. I can still clearly remember when although within the industry the musicians treated him like god, I remember the ugly, almost vicious reviews he used to get. I remember one said he couldn't play, that he had no piano technique. I remember one said his songs were infantile. I remember all the ugly stuff. To watch it turn around, absolutely and completely, to the point where I'm hard pressed to find anybody over sixty years old and a jazz listener—anywhere'who'll say, 'You know, I didn't dig Thelonious in 1950' As a matter of fact, if every person at this juncture in my life who has told me that they were at the Five Spot Caf' when it all turned around for Monk'the Five Spot Caf' would have had to be the size of Giant's Stadium. Because I can't find nobody now who says they weren't there, you know?


I remember those times. This is wonderful stuff. It's storybook stuff. To watch it happen, to watch your father go from what some people could describe as ridicule and disgrace to almost classic adulation, and to be designated one of the most important musical figure of Western Culture, period. Forget about it, that's it. I'm having a ball! I happen to be the one guy on the planet that can say, 'I lived with this guy for 33 years of my life. Oh yeah, I know what he ate for breakfast and how he acted. What kind of jokes he liked'. I can tell you honestly, that's very, very special. Very few people get the opportunity to spend ten seconds around real genius. I mean the real thing. Certified by everybody, everywhere. I did. That's an honor and a fuckin' privilege.

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