The Thelonious Monk Reader, Edited by: Rob van der Bliek

Oxford University Press 2001

©Laurence Svirchev

Genius musician Thelonious Sphere Monk died in 1982, a young 64 years old. Monk was a man who had long captured the attention of the press because of his enigmatic demeanor and awry music, but amazingly the first book about him only appeared in 1987. After German musicologist Thomas Fitterling’s incisive commentaries, three other books in the French language followed. Laurent de Wilde’s and Fitterling’s books were later translated into English. Only in 1997 did an American-written book appear. Now we are fortunate to have The Thelonious Monk Reader, the first anthology of short writings about Monk.

The collection covers the entire professional period of Monk’s life, including the years when vapid comments on his personal appearance contained more substance than the reviews of his music. Thus we can read the great jazz photographer Bill Gottlieb making a fashion-plate statement for an article in a 1947 Down Beat: “Even without his music, which was wonderful, you could recognize his cult from his be-bop uniform: goatee, beret, and heavy shell glasses.”  And in hind-sight, we can only shake our heads at the musically illiterate comments of an un-named Down Beat reviewer. This journalist had so little insight into the beautiful composition “’Round About Midnight” that he gave it two stars, saying that it was for “the super-hip alone.”  Of course this composition is now considered a classic standard.

The media-patente myths surrounding Monk’s aura were so strong that even astute writers seemed compelled to begin their articles by exposing the falsehoods. Paul Bacon, writing in Record Changer (1949), called Monk the “High Priest of Bebop” and stated: “It has become fashionable to think of him a greatly overrated musician, something of a charlatan, a mystic whose very mysticism is calculated to conceal a rather prosaic flaw: poor musicianship. That is utter nonsense.”

Monk himself even flummoxed experienced music journalists Ira Gitler (1957) and Leonard Feather (1966 Blindfold Test) when they attempted to interview him. Yet Monk could be entirely scrutable when he wanted to be. In a 1956 interview with Nat Hentoff, Monk opens up his world with a bit of criticism and self-criticism: “Do you think I’m difficult to understand?…Some of my pieces have melodies a nitwit can understand. Like I’ve written one number staying on one note. A tone-deaf person could hum it….Some people say I don’t have enough technique. There is always something I can’t express that I want to…I haven’t reached perfection. Maybe people with those opinions have reached perfection.”

Hentoff’s interview had broken the critical ice, and once that happened, a higher level of journalism began to appear. The stellar French critic André Hodeir in 1959 wrote an essay on Monk. He calls Monk’s solo during a Miles Davis recording of Bag’s Groove “The first formally perfect solo in the history of jazz.” Hodeir analyzes and praises “the catalyzing effect that asymmetrical structures can have on symmetrical ones” and “the acute struggle between the disjunct phrasing and those pregnant silences.”

In a 1970 essay from his book The Jazz Tradition, the apperceptive Martin Williams puts Monk’s previously alleged lack of technique in context: “Obviously Monk sacrificed techniques of manual dexterity for techniques of expressiveness…Not that Monk’s whole tone runs are easy to play [but] the unorthodox fingering that gives him the sound he wants.” Williams offers as an example of Monk’s virtuosity the situation where he simultaneously plays an inside trill with the first fingers of his right hand while playing melody notes with his outer fingers.”

Similarly, the pianist Ran Blake (The Wire, 1984) comments on Monk’s technique during the composition “Eronel”: “At the beginning of the first solo chorus and again at the beginning of the second, he plays a trill with the with the thumb and index finger of his right hand while the fourth and fifth fingers articulate the accented melody notes…this feat of pianism certainly merits the term ‘virtuosity.’”  Blake also donates stunning literary phrases to describe Monkish musical phrases, e.g., “a twilight zone of tonality.”

This book contains valuable insights into how Monk was viewed by non-musicians during his working life. From a journalists’ point of view, it is a case study of how glib attitudes about an artist can chill a career. But most importantly The Thelonious Monk Reader is replete with highly literate writing that enhanced Monk’s career and helps future generations understand how great Monk actually was. In his introduction, van Bliek is careful to state that due to copyright and other publishing conditions he was not able to include some historic works by other authors. Let us only hope that the success of this book permits those other sources to be re-published.

Originally published in Planet Jazz, Montreal, Spring/Summer 2001

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