by Thelonious Monk (born Oct. 10, 1917); on (e.g.) “Monk’s Music”; Monk, piano; Ray Copeland, trumpet; Gigi Gryce, alto sax; Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, tenor sax; Wilbur Ware, bass; Art Blakey, drums. Riverside, 1957, remastered for CD, 1993.

You have a curious relationship with Thelonious Monk. You dig him (natty but conceptually dishevelled genius, wise fool) and his music (dishevelled genius, wise foolishness) – dig, which is to say: more than fond of: touched, moved, admiring, a little scared. Like several of his colleagues in the “be-bop” era, Monk (everybody calls him Monk, even you, though you hate it when people call Miles Miles) has an evocative back-story – fathering be-bop, losing his cabaret card after the cops jump him in a car with someone else’s drugs (Bud Powell’s?); signing on as a jazz educator, then showing up at a university, offering careful attention as the band plays, and “after much beard-stroking and musing,”* advising: “Keep on tryin’!” “Whiplash” on quaaludes.

You see Monk as the perfect modern hero, which is to say an ironic hero – a role model by default, a deliberate parody of a B-movie cliché: fiercely true to himself and his art despite poverty and prejudice and ecstatic-hubristic self-consciousness – the eiron, the fool who sees better than Lear. You love the way he hesitates over which note to hit but still plays in time, his time, the way his music is deliberately out of tune with perfect pitch. Dig those crazy chords! Trinkle Trinkle. Weapons of mass construction. Above all, you love the Gestalt of this, Monk’s punk wit, gassing off from the gelignite of his personality, nuclear fusion at the brink of out-of-control, the volatile wisdom that funny is as serious as it gets – a central thread in your own way of being, critique and solace all at once: the “dischords” of tragicomedy, of life lived mindfully if perplexed.

But his music wears you out. It demands so much, sometimes too much. The anxiety in those polyhedral rhythms, his furious squint over the keyboard, the inebriate chords, the tension of gut-wrenching sad against gut-thrumming hilarious, the historic tragedy enlivening, perversely, the absurdity. The deadliness, the goofiness – the brain-strain of hanging out with a natural-born eccentric. It’s all that, and probably more that you can’t grasp, or won’t. Some say Monk was bipolar, but of course he is multipolar, essential-primordial, like just before the Big Bang: like all geniuses, he’s scary, maybe dangerous. Maybe that’s the essence – Thelonious Sphere Monk is a jazz cliché while paradoxically the model for it, its shining creator and essence, bristling shambolic godhead, not some shop-worn iteration. …

… For whatever reason, you rarely cue him up these days. But once heard, this tune, and “Blue Monk,” and “Straight, No Chaser,” and “Off Minor,” and “Ruby My Dear,” are in your blood, constituent.** I’ve selected this band arrangement because of its collegial swing, with some celebrated players. Then again, the trio versions (piano and battery) are in many ways more in the spirit of the piece: spare, alone, iconoclastic.***

*The description is that of bass-player Bill Crow, in Jazz Anecdotes (Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 45.

** I could as easily have chosen any of these tunes for this day, and still might assign one or some or all of them to other days.

*** Hear, e.g., “Genius of Modern Music,” Blue Note 1947, remastered 2001.


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