Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 28, No. 2. 1965.
Auckland University Jazz Club
Jazz is a music that prides itself on its originality and spontaneity, improvisation being held up as its great distinguishing feature. Yet, of the thousands of jazzmen working today, a mere handful have anything to say that is their own, that reflects themselves and is not borrowed. One of those few is Thelonious Monk, at 44 years a dominating, yet curiously uninfluential pianist, composer and bandleader. His visit in April, at the height of his fame, is probably the most important event in the history of Jazz in New Zealand.
The last time Monk was employed in a band was in 1944, when he was a member of Coleman Hawkins' group at the Onyx Club in 52nd Street. From 1944 until 1956, when the "Monk Revival" began, thanks to Riverside Records' systematic documentation of his work, Monk's only public playing appears to have been sporadic club gigs. It was during this period, however, that he made what well may be his most important records, for Blue Note and Prestige.
From 1956 onwards, Monk has recorded frequently and in surroundings that are obviously of his own choosing. Since 1962 he has been under contract to Columbia records, a sure sign of having "arrived." (Columbia's Jazz roster is small, but includes such as Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis.) He has toured internationally with his quartet which, since 1959, has included tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse and almost every young bassist and drummer in the New York union list, and has received critical accolades of all kinds. He is now a celebrity.
Thus Monk's career has until recently, been that of a solitary, a recluse Legends abound of his eccentricities and aloofness and the image of the enigmatic "High Priest of Bepop," behind dark glasses and a wall of indifference has persisted even as late as the film "Jazz on a Summer's Day." His music has been regarded "by analogy as difficult" and "far-out." All this makes his recognition the more welcome.
Monk's music is distinctive and personal. It seems astringent, awkward, frequently gauche. There is no doubt of its technical difficulty, which may be why comparatively few groups play it. Yet despite these qualities, many Monk tunes have a curious naivete, an earnest questing, almost plodding sound. Monk's own piano-playing always sounds the most apt medium for his tunes. He embellishes them with lone, flowing runs that seem an integral part of them and never mere decoration.
Tune titles are often a useful guide to a tune's character—Well, You Needn't, for example, could never be the name of a lush mood piece, nor could Evonce, Let's Cool One or Rhythm-a-ning. On the other hand, such tunes as Crepescule with Nellie, Reflections and Pannonica have a charm and poise completely at odds with Monk's more headlong compositions. It is rash to generalise about Monk; his work is like that of many great artists who forget a piece when it is completed proceeding to the next work completely unawed by past creations.
Part of the importance of Monk is that he is completely within a very basic type of jazz. He does not borrow from classical sources nor "experiment" with "time"—although he one-upped the entire "time-out" bit in 1952 when he recorded the tune Carolina Moon in 6-4. All Monk's tools are those of the Jazz musician; his idea of the perfect band he once said to be "three horns, three rhythm"—an answer placing him squarely within the standard Jazz instrumentation.
This makes Monk unusual in an era when most forward-looking jazz is concerned with a fusion of jazz and other forms of music, or with a complete abandon of all formal "rules" of music, but he is not unique—both Cecil Taylor and Charlie Mingus look within jazz for their inspiration. Monk, like' Mingus and Taylor, is an emotional rather than intellectual researcher.
Monk's compositions will last, but his influence, because of the highly personalised nature of his music, has been comparatively small. Other groups playing Monk tunes usually seem to play the written melody then, having disposed of the melody, as if of a chore, launch into solos based on the harmonic progression of the tune, following the normal practice of jazz musicians. This is not Monk's way—a good Monk performance is an integrated whole the improvised solos reflecting not only the technical basis of the tune but also Its own mood and feel.
Far from being "way-out" Monk's own playing reflects such "stride" pianists as Willie "the lion'' Smith and James P. Johnson, his touch varying from the brutal to the delicate. It is perhaps as an accompanist that Monk features best as a pianist He frequently leaves many bars empty of accompaniment returning suddenly to place the entire solo he is "accompanying" in a new perspective with a single chord.
Thelonious Monk seems to demand total involvement from his men, and in return offers them a unity and musical purpose rare in jazz. The chance to see Monk in person should not be missed To a casual listener, he offers an array of intriguing and personal sounds and a drive and swing that few groups can match. To a closer listening, Monk's music gives a glimpse of the logical workings of a mind unique in Jazz today.