The Timeless Thelonious Monk

There’s a documentary coming to PBS’s Afro-Pop: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange on May 1 that features a re-emerged 1969 French interview with Thelonius Monk produced for State TV. Titled Rewind & Play it’s essentially an interview and piano session. It’s written and directed by award-winning French-Senegalese director and screenwriter Alain Gomis, who also directed the indie hit Félicité (2017).

The interview comes at the end of Monk’s 1969 European tour. Monk looks tired and is being interviewed in French, which he does speak. He must wait for a  translation of insipid questions. He plays piano pieces, with questions from his unexcited interlocutor between pieces. Monk looks bored and confused at times, but, generally, his sound is sometimes solid and sometimes choppy.

The subhead of an Esquire piece by writer Natt Hentoff from April 1960, succinctly summed up Monk’s trials and tribulations at that time: “Outside his music there is little but trouble; inside, little but genius.” Hentoff begins the article with:

It has become inescapably hip in the past year to accept Thelonius Sphere Monk as one of the reigning council — and perhaps the lama — of modern jazz.  He has been elevated from a cartoon to an icon, but in tje process the man himself has remained as opaque and unpredictable as in his barren years.

Monk was displaced on the cover of Time magazine by the JFK assassination and didn’t get there until February 1964. In 1969, Monk was nearing the end of a grand career as a be-bopper, having influenced over the decades many of the greats, including John Coltrane, Johnny Griffin, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan, and many others. But some say that the French interviewer he is with in Rewind & Play is disrespected. I just found it to be a moronic interview. They should have just let him play. If there was dissing going on, it was probably the quality of the sound in the studio.

Monk has had his detractors. Some jazz pianists hated his style and found it hard to emulate. His technique seems difficult, especially his left hand.  Some couldn’t grasp the melange of stroppy dissonance and references to, seemingly, Scott Joplin. A major hater was the illustrious poet Philip Larkin who said of Monk:

Thelonious Monk seemed a not-very-successful comic, as his funny hats proclaimed: his faux-naif elephant-dance piano style, with its gawky intervals and absence of swing, was made doubly tedious by his limited repertoire. [All what jazz : a record diary 1961-1971, p. 20-21]

But, to be fair, Larkin said of almost all the jazz greats of Monk’s era, “I disliked them all.”

But the pioneering soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy more than makes up for Larkin’s critique, when says of Monk in an interview in his book Conversations:

Monk’s tunes are the ones that I most enjoy playing. I like his use of melody, harmony, and especially his rhythm. Monk’s music has profound humanity, disciplined economy, balanced virility, dramatic nobility, and innocently exuberant wit. Monk, by the way, like Louis Arm- strong, is a master of rhyme. For me, other masters of rhyme are Bird, Duke, Miles, Art Blakey, and Cecil Taylor.


In “The Silence of Thelonious Monk,”  There’s a nifty little tale that the great writer John Wideman tells of Monk in his favorite deli in Manhattan ordering up:

Good morning, Mr. Monk. How you do ink this fine morning? Sammy the butcher calls over his shoulder, busy with a takeout order or whatever it is, keeping his back turned.

If the dead lunch meat replied, it would be no surprise at all to Sammy compared with how high he’d jump, how many fingers he’d lose in the slicer, if the bearish, bearded schwartze in the knitted Kufi said good morning back. Monk stares at the white man in the white apron and T-shirt behind the white deli counter. At himself in the mirror where the man saw him. At the thin, perfect sheets that buckle off the cold slab of corned beef.

Red has his little neat white package in his hand and wants to get home and fix him a chopped-liver-and-onion sandwich and have it washed down good with a cold Heineken before his first pupil of the afternoon buzzes so he’s on his way out when he hears Sammy say: Be with you in a moment, Mr. Monk.

Leave that mess you’re messing wit alone, nigger, and get me some potato knishes, the story goes and Panama Red cracking up behind Monk’s habit of niggering white black brown red Jew Muslim Christian, the only distinction of color mattering the ivory or ebony keys of his instrument and Thelonious subject to fuck with that difference, too, chasing rainbows.

[Callaloo, Vol. 22, No. 3, John Edgar Wideman. The European Response: A Special Issue (Summer, 1999), pp. 550-557]

This seems like a good place to recall the colorful character of Monk not exactly apparent in the film.

Rewind & Play will probably appeal to Monk fans the way some Dylan fans eat up every scrap of his outtakes and obscure sessions.  So, it’s recommended on that account alone.

Here’s “I Mean You (Live From Salle Pleyel, Paris, France/1969)” [You Tube]:

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.