Usually Monk walked. He ambled across the city on feet as light as a tap-dancer. He weaved his way down block after block, whistling, humming, snapping his fingers. Monk liked to take different routes, but most of them led eventually to the Hudson River, where the large man in the strange hat would lean on the railing and watch the lights of the city dance on the black water.
Wordsworth said that many of his poems collected in the Lyrical Ballads were written to the rhythms of his long walks across the hills of the Lake District. Thelonious Monk composed some the most revolutionary music of the 20th century out on the streets of Manhattan, rambling down the sidewalks or staring out at the sluggish river. Those fresh new sounds just flowed through his head as he prowled the city: “Criss Cross,” “Coming on the Hudson,” “Brilliant Corners,” “Manhattan Moods.”
But on a steamy August night in 1951 Monk missed his evening walk. Instead he was sitting in a car outside his mother’s house with his friend Bud Powell. Monk’s mother, Miss Barbara, had cancer and he had been staying with her when Powell, the tormented genius, dropped over with a couple of his friends.
Powell was agitated, manic, talking smack. He skittered around the kitchen, bellowing a stream of invective. Monk wanted to calm Powell down. Bud hadn’t been the same since that night in Philadelphia when a racist cop split his head open with a truncheon. He was a little off now, a little paranoid, a little skittish. Powell had grown so unpredictable that even his old friend Charlie Parker refused to play with him anymore, telling Miles Davis: “Bud’s even crazier than me!”
More and more, Powell needed booze and junk just to steady his hands, to force himself on stage, to dull the painful throb in his head. Sometimes the sound of Monk’s voice could ease him, settle him back into a groove. On this fateful night, Monk suggested they go out in the car to talk so that his mother and young son could sleep.
A few minutes later two New York City cops approached the car, swinging nightsticks. They were from the narcotics squad, out to harass the local junkies. When Powell saw the cops flash their badges, he panicked. He franticly threw a small sleeve of heroin toward the window. He missed. The packet landed at Monk’s feet. The cops picked up the envelope, noticed the drug residue and promptly arrested everyone in the car on charges of narcotics possession.
At the station, Monk denied that the heroin was his and said he didn’t know who it belonged to. During his interrogation he repeatedly refused to implicate Powell, who had been strapped into a straightjacket and sent to the psych ward at Bellevue. Monk would never snitch out Powell. Seven years older than Powell, Monk had been his mentor, his friend, his nurse. He knew Powell was too frail to handle prison and later said he wasn’t about to “drag him down.”
Thelonious Monk was never an addict. He flirted with heroin and like most musicians he sometimes popped speed to play late night gigs and swallowed downers to get to sleep in the morning. He smoked marijuana now and then. But Monk never lived for drugs, never allowed them to shape the contours of his life or the textures of his music.
Monk’s bail was set at $1,500, a ludicrous sum given the few crystals of heroin the cops were able to scrape off the glassine slip and Monk’s impoverished condition.
Indeed, Monk was so poor in those days that he couldn’t even pay his union dues, tagged at one-percent of his musical earnings or about $10 per year. Consequently, his membership had been revoked for two years. Lacking money to pay for a doctor, Nellie had been forced to give birth to Toot, the Monks’ first child, in the grim City Hospital on so-called Welfare Island.
Monk hadn’t had many playing gigs in nearly three years. Some musicians griped that Monk was too difficult to work with, that his minimalist playing style was too irregular. Of course, most of these complaints came from musicians who never actually appeared on stage with Monk. Those who had played with him, like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, praised Monk’s sympathetic and nuanced accompaniment and unparalleled skills as a bandleader.
Even worse for his finances, Monk had gotten the reputation among club owners as a malcontent. Monk had been banned from Birdland after an altercation with the club’s manager. Monk was picky about the tuning of the pianos and he was pushy about getting paid. He wanted money, not booze or dope.
Being destitute, Monk spent the night in the Tombs and was later transferred to the dark pit of Riker’s Island, where he spent a miserable 60 days.
Shamefully, few in the jazz world came to Monk’s defense. Many viewed Monk as an outsider, a loner, an eccentric. Leonard Feather, then the dean of jazz writers, had publicly derided Monk’s talent, even going so far as to falsely assert that Monk hadn’t written the bebop classic “Epistrophy.” Monk angrily confronted Feather one afternoon at Lincoln Center, snatching the arrogant Englishman by the collar and threatening to hurl him over the balcony. “You’re messin’ with my bread, man,” Monk fumed.
The word spread around town. Monk was violent, erratic, dangerous. People stayed away, turned their backs on the composer of “Round Midnight.”
Only Alfred Lion at Blue Note Records worked to raise money for Monk’s bail. But Lion could only scrap together a few hundred dollars. According to Robin Kelley’s glorious biography, Thelonious Monk: the Life and Times of an American Original, the NAACP legal fund refused to take his case, saying that they didn’t “touch anything involving narcotics.” Eventually Lion was able to hire attorney Andrew Weinberger to take Monk’s case.
As Monk languished in prison, working in the bakery, his wife Nellie, sick with an almost crippling intestinal disorder, tried to keep the family afloat earning a few dollars a week working at a local laundry and at night by mending clothes. She was also taking care of their 18-month-old son and Monk’s ailing mother. Each Sunday Nellie took the long bus ride out to Riker’s for a brief visit with Monk.
With no piano in the prison, Monk mimed the chords and melodies to songs on his knees, on the tables, on the walls of his cell. He hummed new tunes with Nellie in mind. He kept the variations running and re-running through his mind, making mental charts of the way the music was changing.
Meanwhile, Bud Powell had transferred sent from Bellevue to the notorious Pilgrim State Hospital, the world’s largest asylum, where shrinks with scalpels were butchering brains in the name of psychiatry. Powell, the most gifted pianist of his time, was pumped full of the latest drugs from Eli Lilly’s labs, strapped to a gurney and his body convulsed with crippling jolts of electricity, again and again, week after week.
Everybody agreed: Bud Powell had poetic hands. Nobody hit the keys the way he did. The sound of his playing was rich and chromatic, swinging with an almost ecstatic intensity. He was also fast, maybe as fast as Art Tatum. Powell played with blazing speed but his runs were also clear and coherent. He was the first pianist to record Monk’s “Round Midnight,” in 1944 when he was playing with trumpeter Cootie Williams. Monk returned the favor by writing “In Walked Bud.” Where Bud Powell’s playing was fluid and flashy, Monk’s was angular, oblique and as fractured as a Cubist painting. Powell dazzled nearly everyone who heard him, but to many Monk was an acquired, if not peculiar, taste.
As a composer Powell was nearly as inventive as Monk. In songs like “Dance of the Infidels,” “Tempus Fugit”, “Oblivion” and “Hallucinations,” Powell seemed to be developing a new vocabulary for music. Literary critic Harold Bloom cited Powell’s “Un Poco Loco” as one of the greatest works of twentieth century American art. He made the piano sing.
But the police beatings, the psychotropic drugs and the electro-shock sessions took their toll. Powell was never the same following his release from Pilgrim in 1953. He was assigned to the guardianship of Oscar Goldstein, the owner of the Birdland jazz club. Goldstein kept Powell in a state of prison-like confinement. His system was saturated with heavy doses of the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine, which severely degraded his ability to play. Powell later wrote a song about those lonely months titled “Glass Enclosure.”
By 1956, Powell was a shattered man. The pianist had endured more the 100 electroshock sessions in his brief life. His friend Jackie Mclean, the stellar sax player, speculated that Powell’s doctors had subjected the musician to treatments that resemble torture more than therapy. “He was so messed up, I think they were experimenting on him,” Mclean said. It’s worth noting that at the time Powell was being put through the wringer, the CIA was secretly financing experiments in electroshock, mind-altering drugs and psycho-surgery at hospitals in the US and Canada. While there’s no evidence that Powell was a CIA research subject, some of that agency money found its way to doctors working at the two psychiatric hospitals—Pilgrim and Creedmore—where Powell underwent long-term confinement. (More than a decade later, when Monk was battling his own mental demons, doctors in New York recommended electroshock therapy. But his family intervened, recalling vividly how the shock treatments had debilitated Powell.)
Powell spent the next five years in Paris, playing small clubs, working off-and-on with Dexter Gordon, panhandling for bottles of cheap wine. He played mainly standards, because he found it hard to learn new material. Even then, he often cut his sets short. Sometimes he would stop in the middle of a song, stare blankly at the keyboard, then erupt in an inchoate rage. Powell, now stricken with TB, returned to New York in 1964 for an engagement at Birdland, but he just didn’t have the goods anymore. He seemed to get lost in his own songs. The run was cut short. In the next four years he only performed twice in public, and both gigs were disasters. And then Powell was living on the streets, coughing up blood from the TB and a bad liver. He died on July 1, 1966 of malnutrition. To put it another way, Bud Powell, the man Bill Evans called the most talented jazz musician of his time, starved to death on the streets of Manhattan. He was only 41.
* * *
Monk’s case finally came to trial in October. The judge in the case seemed appalled that Monk had been held for so long on such flimsy evidence and released him. The world had changed in those sixty days. For starters, his producer Alfred Lion had paid his back union dues. Lion had also put together eight of Monk’s old 78 recordings on a long-playing album for Blue Note titled The Genius of Modern Music. LPs were new on the jazz scene and these records would allow Monk a new kind of freedom to extend his improvisations beyond the strict three-minute limits of the 78 records.
But there was a serious problem. Following Monk’s arrest, the New York authorities had revoked his cabaret card, which he needed in order to perform in clubs that served alcohol. It was going to be hard to promote the new album if he couldn’t play in public.
So for those first few months, Monk spent most of his time at home: cooking, cleaning, tending to his mother and young son. He made a little money giving piano lessons at his house, arranging songs for other bands, teaching young musicians the chord changes and harmonics of the new music that he and Bird and Powell had invented up at Minton’s Playhouse in the 1940s.
Monk took long walks in the night after Nellie came home, composing new songs in his head, re-structuring old standards into startling new forms, listening to the jazz and blues pouring out of the Harlem clubs. Sometimes he would go over to Brooklyn and play in black-owned bars, places that openly defied the New York Liquor Authority’s ban on cardless musicians, places that never saw the likes of Leonard Feather. Other evenings he walked to Art Blakey’s house, where the two jazz titans played chess into the wee hours.
All in all, Monk’s station in life hadn’t improved much. The Blue Note records didn’t sell very well and neither did the excellent Prestige albums with Sonny Rollins and Max Roach that followed them. He still wasn’t getting many paying gigs and he was being screwed out of the royalties for “Round Midnight,” one of the most frequently performed songs of the 1950s.
Critics largely remained confounded by Monk’s style. He wasn’t as flashy or fast as Art Tatum and he wasn’t as transcendent as Powell, the great virtuoso. Monk’s idiom was for crooked passages and tricky time signatures, punctuated by strange silences and negative spaces, as if he had stripped the songs down to only essential elements. Essential for Monk, that is.
Nellie called those lean days the “un-years,” mired in a kind of internal exile, when, banned from playing clubs, Monk retreated into his own head, drifting along to his own tempo. “There was no money,” Nellie said. “No place to go. A complete blank.” Monk described it as like “laying dead.”
Then Monk got a call from Charles Delauney inviting him to France to play at the Third Paris Jazz Festival. Monk was ecstatic at the chance. He’d long been a Francophile, hence the beret he wore through most of the 1940s and the “Free France” button he often pinned to his lapel. Monk had one important gig to play before boarding the Air France jet to Orly: a benefit for Paul Robeson, whose passport had been revoked by the Truman Administration in retaliation for his vocal opposition to war with the Soviet Union. It was a risky event to play at, but by then Monk, who had long admired Robeson (as much for his athleticism as his acting and activism), figured he had nothing more to lose.
Monk was ready for Paris, but the Parisians, who had embraced so many black jazz musicians, didn’t know what to make of Monk, when he swaggered across the stage at the Salle Pleyel in a bright blue suit and launched into a curvy version of “Off Minor.” By most accounts, Monk was drunk, having spent the day smoking pot and drinking potent French cognac for the first time. He was also playing with two French musicians who didn’t understand or even know his music. They’d only rehearsed the songs once. But it was Monk’s music and playing style that really seemed to befuddle, if not appall, the French. This was not Count Basie or Duke Ellington. Monk writhed and grunted as he played, stomping the pedals with his large feet, crushing the keys with his elbow. He was sweated and moaned as he pounded out those weird block chords to splintered modulations and laid down fractured riffs spliced together like jump cuts in a Godard film. When it was all over, many of the French, accustomed to Dixieland and swing, booed Monk’s performance, while others just shook their heads wondering what had just transpired. By and large, Europeans didn’t seem to get Monk’s music. The poet Philip Larkin famously smeared Monk as “the elephant at the keyboard.” How to explain this hostility? Is it because Monk’s playing, unlike that of Ellington, Powell, or Bill Evans, owed nothing to the classical tradition?
Backstage, Monk ran into long-time friend Mary Lou Williams, the remarkable jazz pianist and composer who had worked with Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman. Williams had moved to Paris two years earlier. With Williams was a slender woman dripping with jewels named Nica, who would alter Monk’s career and life. Nica was the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswater, an heiress of the Rothschild banking family. Nica shook Monk’s hand and told him to ignore the jeers from the audience. “I’ve been listening to your music for years,” she said, telling Monk that she had cried the first time she heard him play “Round Midnight.”
Nica was known as the Baroness of Bebop. She told Monk that she had moved to Manhattan after splitting with her husband, Jules, an Austrian baron and mining magnate. Nica was living in a suite on Fifth Avenue at the Stanhope Hotel, where Charlie Parker would die in her care. She told Monk to look her up when he got back to Manhattan.
After Monk returned to New York, his career began to pick up. He signed a deal with Riverside Records and quickly recorded two of his best albums: the startling Thelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington and Brilliant Corners with Sonny Rollins blowing a fire-breathing sax. Both records sold relatively well and earned Monk some of his best reviews.
In 1957, he was offered a long-running slot at the Five Spot Café on Cooper Square in the Bowery, which was a hang out for Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and abstract expressionist painters like Franz Klein and Willem de Kooning. Monk’s band at the Five Spot featured John Coltrane on sax and Wilbur Ware on bass. The place was packed every night.
When the Five Spot engagement ended, Coltrane left Monk’s quartet to rejoin Miles Davis. Monk took a few months before assembling a new band to play a weeklong residency at the Comedy Club in Baltimore. The new quartet featured Charlie Rouse on tenor, Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass and Roy Haynes on drums.
The day before Monk was set to leave for the Baltimore engagement, Nellie got sick and told Monk she didn’t feel like coming. So he called up Nica and she offered to drive Monk and Rouse down to Baltimore in her white Bentley. Monk might have contracted Nellie’s cold, because he felt ill and a little grouchy. When they crossed into Delaware, Monk asked Nica to stop somewhere so he could get a drink. “A cold drink,” Monk said as they cruised down Route 40. “A beer, a glass of water, anything?”
Nica pulled off at a place called the Park Plaza Motel, just outside the town of New Castle. Nica waited in the car as Monk got out and went inside. Rouse was laying down in the backseat, snoring. What Nica likely didn’t know was the Delaware remained one of the most racist states in the east. Some blacks referred to it as Northern Mississippi. Geographically a northern state, Delaware still rigidly adhered to Jim Crow laws and attitudes. It was the only northern state to have school segregation inscribed into its constitution. Even into the 1960s, Delaware featured whites only clubs, restrooms and motels. And Thelonious Monk had just walked right into one of them.
Monk entered the motel, saw no one at the front desk and walked back toward the kitchen, where he asked a woman for a glass of water. The woman was a Mrs. Tonge, the wife of the owner. She stared at Monk hostilely and demanded that he leave the hotel.
“All I want is a glass of water,” Monk replied. “I don’t want a room. Just a drink.”
“We don’t have any water for you, just leave,” the woman snapped.
Monk didn’t move.
Back at the front desk, Mr. Tonge was on the phone to state police, who arrived at the hotel within minutes. Monk was still standing in the lobby when the cops showed up, with a frantic Nica behind them. They began to badger Monk, but Monk refused to speak to them. Nica told the cops that Monk was ill. The cops grabbed Monk by the arms and dragged him out of the hotel. Monk continued walking to car, opened the door, got in and locked it. Nica followed him.
But as the Bentley drove out of the parking lot, the state troopers, apparently getting suspicious about two black men and a woman in a fancy car, tailed them, sirens wailing. The troopers pounded on Monk’s window, demanding that he get of the car. Monk refused.
“Why the hell should I?” Monk yelled at the cops.
By now two other police cars had pulled up. The troopers surrounded the Bentley, nightsticks drawn. Monk didn’t budge. The troopers had no warrant and no probable cause to stop or search the car.
“Get out of the fucking car nigger,” the trooper screamed, pulling at the door. Monk held on, fiercely. That’s when the cops started bashing his hands with their nightsticks, beating him viciously over and over again, with Nica crying out, “Stop hitting his hands! He’s a pianist.” But the troopers kept pounding Monk. Nica’s pleas only seemed to fuel their rage. They savagely beat his hands, his arms, his head. They ripped off his red silk tie and threw Monk on the ground.
“Monk didn’t back down,” Charlie Rouse said. “If he thinks he’s right he sticks by what he thinks. If they told him to sit down, he stood up. If they told him to say something, he said nothing.”
With two troopers holding his arms, Monk walked toward the patrol car with a defiant swagger, his bleeding hands cuffed behind his back. He was humming.
This essay originally appeared in CounterPunch magazine December 2011.
What I’m listening to this week…
Echolocations: River by Andrew Bird
Ojalá by Lost Horizons
U-Men by U-Men
Bone on Bone by Bruce Cockburn
Scarlett Roses by Grayson Capps
What I’m reading this week…
The Infidel and the Professor by Dennis Rasmussen
Black Tudors: the Untold Story by Miranda Kaufmann
Electric Arches by Eve Ewing
Norman O. Brown: “Utopian speculations must come back into fashion. They are a way of affirming faith in the possibility of solving problems that seem at the moment insoluble. Today even the survival of humanity is a utopian hope.”