PORTRAITS THELONIOUS MONK
Well You Needn’t
Always know was one of Thelonious Monk's themes. And he knew. When people
told Monk that his music was weird he always replied that it was logical.
His predilection toward logic may have precipitated from the fact that he
excelled in physics and math as a high school student. It may also account
for the many enigmatic or paradoxical answers or responses that Monk gave
when questioned. All jazz musicians are mathematicians unconsciously, was
a favorite theory of Monk's. Those who have studied his compositions have
found them to be perfectly structured.
Monk also knew that his music and its secret messages would remain an
enigma long after its exposure to the world for years to come. The "High
Priest of Bop," as he was later dubbed, remarked in 1959 that he had
always been content to play his music his way and let the public catch up
to him. :'.. even if it does take them 15, 20 years' which, of course, it
Randy Weston, a Monk exponent, did a little catching up, too! Randy
thought that the pianist just couldn't play the first time he heard Monk.
But Weston s admiration for Coleman Hawkins, his idol, made Weston lend a
more discerning ear to Monk’s offbeat playing.
Thelonious Monk was probably the most original pianist I ever heard. I
first heard him play with Coleman Hawkins in the late '40s. They were
playing on 52nd Street. Hawkins was my idol. He was the first man to play
jazz on a tenor saxophone and he was so brilliant. Not only that but
Hawkins always played with the young, advanced musicians. And, they were
all great talents. So, that's how I discovered Monk and ironically, the
first song I heard him play was, Ruby, My Dear.
Ruby, My Dear, a Monk composition, and a hauntingly beautiful
ballad was inspired by Thelonious' first love, Ruby Richardson, a
dietician and his sister Marion's best friend.
Monk himself had been influenced by the grand Duke Ellington, and the
great stride pianist, James P. Johnson. Though he rarely talked about his
influences Monk was quoted as saying of his blues improvisation,
Functional, "I sound just like James P" James P Johnson had lived near the
Monk family in the San Juan section of Manhattan, New York, a primarily
Black area, and befriended Thelonious in the early '30s. San Juan was a
thriving center of rich Black culture and was home for many musicians,
writers, and other artists, including Eubie Blake.
Randy Weston proved to be a most loyal, engaging disciple of Monk's. I
went to Monk's house, asked him if I could visit him. He said, 'Yes' I
went by to see him, spent nine hours in his home. He didn't speak at all,
just sent vibrations like the great Sufi masters. And, he refused to
answer any of my question.
Though perplexed by Monk, Randy would later learn in his travels to Africa
that Monk's way of communicating was the traditional African way of the
elders and the ancient African ancestors.
Although he notated all his compositions, Monk often refused to let even
his sidemen see his sheet music, preferring to let them learn his tunes by
playing them rather than reading them, which was also the African way,
Randy would later discover.
When I got ready to leave, Monk invited me to come back again. About a
month later, he played about three hours for me on the piano.
When I heard him play I realized that this was the direction for me to go.
That really opened my eyes.
This encounter allowed Randy to free up his own style and creativity. He
suddenly realized that, with Monk, as he would recognize again later with
Duke's piano playing, there were no time or style barriers.
In the early to mid 1950's Monk couldn't work in the New York clubs
because his cabaret card had been revoked for six years. For three years,
Randy recalls, I used to pick Monk up in my car and bring him to Brooklyn
because in Brooklyn we always had that community spirit. He couldn't work
but he never complained. Monk just continued to write and play his music.
In 1957, Monk was rediscovered as a major composer and musician and in
1964 he became the first Black jazz musician to make the front cover of
Time Magazine. 1976 was Monk's last public appearance, at the Newport Jazz
Festival of 1976, due to illness.
He made a heavy impact on me because he taught me perseverance. He taught
me, also, no compromise - never compromise your Music.
You see, Randy observes, these men are like great prophets. What the
Creator has done is bring them to us bringing all these gifts of music and
these gifts are like almost a place that has no boundaries «If you can,
imagine a building that has no walls and no ceiling but yet, its a
building. But its so vast and so expanding.
So, they came and brought us all this music. And with all they gave we can
take what they gave and go in our own direction. Which is exactly what
Randy Weston did becoming one of the music's most valuable assets and most
important composer/musicians, as a modern pianist.
Although Monk's influence is easily recognizable, there is no question
that Weston has developed his own style and his own audience. Following
the tradition of all the great masters, he has taken the best of what he
has learned from all his influences and melded them, to create fresh new
music for our future generations.
Though, Portraits of Monk, is a tribute to one of the world's most revered
composer/pianists Weston does not attempt to imitate Monk. With musicians
Idris Muhammad, drummer, Jamil Nasser, bassist, and Eric Asante,
percussionist, Randy plays some of Monk's compositions, Weston style. He
combines the sounds and rhythms that he has gathered in his thirty years
as a musician with the New-Orleans sound of Muhammad, a touch of Africa
from Asante, and the deep, bluesy Memphis sound of Jamil Nasser.
Together, in the Ferber Studio, Paris, they produced a bit of magic, all
in a single day and with no prior rehearsal, no music sheets, just sheer
joy! All of the funk, the beauty, the unexpected, and of course, the
mystery that one would associate with Monk's music is here. At the bottom
of it all is the ever present blues. Deep!
The way I played these songs was spontaneous. We just decided we'd get
together and play. We didn't particularly do any arrangements. We just
played the way we felt.
I'm not copying Monk. What I'm trying to do is create a musical portrait
of him, taking some of his compositions, using some of his riffs, some of
his phrases. But, it's a way of, through music, describing him.
The songs I chose were chosen either because they had a particular history
or because they were just songs that I heard growing up and loved. These
are all songs that Monk wrote before I met him or during the time that I
spent with him.» These songs also represent part of a time of great, great
creativity in the history of the music - the 20's to the 60's when much of
the most influential, greatest music in history was written and performed
by the best!
1989 by Randy Weston as told to Rhashidah E. McNeill