The Thelonious Monk Reader
Edited by Rob van der Bliek
Oxford, 286 pp., $30
Reviewed by Don Rose
The eminent French musicologist Andre Hodeir posed an intriguing hypothesis back in 1959:
It is not unthinkable that in the eyes of posterity Monk will be THE Jazzman of our time, just as Debussy is now seen to have been THE composer of the period immediately preceding the first World War.
I don't necessarily agree with him about Monk (or Debussy), but the thought is provocative and in a sense, defensible—despite another comment Hodeir makes elsewhere in the same essay reprinted in this outstanding anthology:
Monk may not have gone far enough yet. His music may not be sufficiently well-developed to exert any lasting influence on the majority of musicians.
Forget the word "majority"; by 1959 Monk had already gone far enough to become a major influence on progressive musicians, as witness his effect on John Coltrane and much of the avant garde that followed in the early '60s. That influence, particularly compositionally, is pervasive today—though not perhaps as evident as the influence of, say, Bill Evans on a multitude of pianists.
The Hodeir essay is one of a half dozen indispensable articles out of a total 39 selected by van der Bliek for inclusion in this volume, which is, in its totality, the most comprehensive analysis of Monk and his work between two covers. It joins similar collections on Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Miles Davis and John Coltrane that various publishers have put out in the past half dozen years.
Monk, because of his personal quirks, oddball behavior and a lifestyle as challenging as his music, has long been ripe fodder for journalists; several of the pieces here deal more with those quirks and lifestyle than the music; several more pieces in fact are reactions to other articles rather than the man and his music.
A Time magazine cover story provoked a stupid response by Leonard Feather, a questioning, puzzling, contradictory piece by Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and yet a third piece analyzing the sociology of the Feather and Jones pieces! All are printed here, though I don't think any of them add much to our knowledge or appreciation of the artist. The Time piece was at least of historic significance.
It's no secret that the pianist-composer-bandleader we all recognize as a genius was misunderstood (if not ridiculed) in his early years in the guise of "the high priest of bop." It is not surprising that early reviews of recordings we now consider classics of the canon ('Well You Needn't" " Epistrophy," "Round About Midnight," "Thelonius," etc.) were generally bombed in Down Beat and the presumably more progressive Metronome (as were many Parker masterworks). The brief reviews are included for historic reference.
What is more surprising is that some of the most insightful, accurate, appreciative and far-seeing reviews of the time were done in The Record Changer—then considered a moldy fig rag—by the graphic artist Paul Bacon. Check out lines written in 1948 such as,
By some quirk, I always think of Monk as a carpenter, lustily doing everything wrong, battling his materials, and coming up with the most uniquely beautiful houses in the world.
Not a bad perspective even at the Millennium.
The articles are organized historically and categorized as reviews, profiles, critical summaries and so forth, working in a lot of biographical data. They range in complexity from featurized takes from the nonmusical press (a particularly annoying one by the often annoying Albert Goldman) to brilliant evaluations such as that by Martin Williams in 1973.
There's a masterful musical analysis by Ran Blake—complete with notated examples and a transcribed solo-published originally in Keyboard Magazine in 1982. Whitney Balliett does a terrific memorial following Monk's death at age 64 in 1982 and Gene Santoro offers a fine later post-mortem evaluation in 1994.
Unfortunately, all the efforts to interview Monk come to little if anything because he was so reluctant and uncommunicative a subject—though there are a few fun moments in a Feather blindfold test.
Several of the pieces display interesting disagreements. Hodeir, for example, says Monk's extraordinary solo on the Miles Davis recording of "Bag's Groove," "constitutes, to my knowledge, the first formally perfect solo in the history of jazz." The British critic Michael James, however, says the same choruses "carry economy of statement to absurdity." (James also dismisses Monk's stunning deconstruction of "The Man I Love" from the same session as "downright ridiculous as he begins by groping hesitantly for the chords.")
It is, of course, the "Bag's Groove" solo that Blake chooses to transcribe and analyze, which ought to settle once and for all that the Frenchman was clearly right and the Brit wrong in this case.
The usually perceptive Gerald Early, in a justifiable rant about the way the white press treated Monk, somehow opined that "Monk had become tiresome" in his later years. "How many times could one stand to hear him play 'Straight No Chaser'...or 'Round Midnight'?"
Others see the artist's consistent renderings of his repertoire as a search for perfection. Williams sums it up beautifully:
Unlike almost every other jazzman, Monk was not only a productive musician after more than 15 years of musical activity, but seemed still to be a growing artist exploring his talent and extending his range.
Other highlights of this highly recommended reader include a perceptive (as usual) review of Mosaic's box set of the Monk Blue Note recordings by Max Harrison, a critical contemporary review by Gunther Schuller of the famed Town Hall concert and a discussion of Monk's devotion to American popular song by Scott DeVeaux. The last of these gives numerous insights into Monk's workings of the music, including plenty of musically notated examples.
You don't have to read music to enjoy most of the book—or even the more technical articles. It would have been an improvement, however, if van der Bliek had added discographical identification for the CDs and precise times for the passages notated. It's been done in other volumes and can be very helpful. Sending us back to the music itself is the real benefit of books like this.