Thelonious Monk, the man who made jazz dance forever

There is a scene in Straight No ChaserThe Charlotte Zwerin documentary produced by Clint Eastwood and dedicated to the life of Thelonious Sphere Monks, which is the synthesis of the art of this indomitable, indomitable and infinite musician. The band plays Evidenceduring saxophonist Charlie Rose’s solo, Monk gets up and starts dancing. A clumsy dance, dervisch. Monk turns to himself, a large man of a hundred kilos who happily turns like a butterfly child on his center of gravity. Then he goes back to the piano and hammers on it, the feet keep the rhythm, the legs fly incoherently. It’s the ecstasy, it’s the electric shock. It’s jazz. It’s Monk. Monk who plays himself and uses the piano to simply give voice to all tones, mountains of tones, which swirled between his heart and his bizarrely shaped hats.

Thelonious Melodious has been gone for forty years, suffering from insanity and a stroke. Yet he dances among us and makes us dance again. Every composition of Monk, every standard he played, even the ballads have enough rhythm to resemble irresistible animated characters.. In these skewed scores, which apparently rest on nothing, pieces of black and white film, Laurel and Hardy, comics, salon cowboys and choristers who celebrate the greatness of the dance halls come and go.. Music for the eyes, a film that takes place.

Monk’s music is pure fun even when it’s toiling, even when it itches in the soul. Fun and beautiful music, a constant anthem for freedom. It seems like a joke that music, constantly in balance, like here, is now about to explode. Here, now the sounds fall apart and it becomes quiet. Here, now Melodious cue. But no. A jolt of the kidneys and the riot between the chords resumes perfectly and fulminating “like a long breath rising”.

You do not even need an anniversary to celebrate it, for Thelonious is always as present, powerful, bulky as any kind of tattoo in the soul. Bulky and very tender. As in Rewind and play the documentary signed this year by The French-Senegalese director Alain Gomis who found a 1969 interview with Monk on French television, but above all behind the scenes of that “heartbreaking” performance. The pianist stays for hours under the light of the studio, he does not understand a word of what Henri Renaud, host, asks him. At the end of the TV trial, he will watch nothing, completely wet with sweat. And instead the Spanish visual artist Javier Arrespays tribute to him by turning it into a moving illustration, a kind of kaleidoscopic Gifby title Theloniopolis: he is in the center of a metropolis and makes music while his tones change the silhouette.

The Gif by Javier Arres at MakersPlace

That city is, of course, New York, status of this colossus born on October 10, 1917 in North Carolina but raised in San Juan Hill, a suburb of the Big Apple. Grew up fighting with gangs of Puerto Rican children. Thelonious Monk, great-grandson of two slaves, son of a maid and a worker. “Then a lady gave us a kind of piano – said the musician – I thought I did not want to waste that gift. And I learned to play.” It started like this. With the piano in the kitchen. It started in the church, after the beloved mother Barbara who prayed and sang and ended with the meeting between Monk and the organ. Laurent de Wilde who wrote The monk himself, brilliant and passionate biography with foreword by Enrico Pieranunzi (Minimum Fax 2007) explains how “Thelonious incredible footwork” is borrowed from that experience. “Monk did not derive his style from the church, but rather the soul of his music.” That’s how it is. Then it was.

1940s: New York is swaying in search of new fashions, something that goes beyond the swing, turns it to the left, cuts itself. Monk trains at Harlem’s Minton’s Club, tirelessly. That club is more than a gym: it is a ring, a square for boxer musicians. Those who have the body and the touch remain in the saddle. Thelonious owns both and strikes the keys and turns them into an orchestra, a volcano, a boiling cauldron. America is at war and those who remain want to dance, dare, prove that they are alive. And there are sounds, stories that now go faster than chords. There is Charlie Parkerof course, but also a tough trumpeter, one who talks about rights, one who wrote a piece with the title Bebop. Called Yrsig Gillespie that he would later have crossed his path with Monk. Their story was short, but it helped the pianist get into jazz’s good and damned lounge.

Bebop then. The new sound master who fills New York nights with adrenaline is him, Thelonious Sphere: dark glasses, absurd hats, gray jackets and a gold ring on his little finger. The crazy and very elegant monk, Nellie’s husband. In this story, Monk’s wife has an important, crucial place. She makes smoothies, suitcases, books, organizes Thelonious’ messy existence. She is the mouse, the house and the cradle. There will be drugs, dragons, alcohol in the pianist’s life but no one else like Nellie. They met when she was 12 and he was 16. “We looked at each other, we recognized each other, years later he remembered my dress perfectly as a child,” Monk said. Robin DG Kelly who studied the artist’s work and life for 16 years and gave it to print “The Story of an American Genius”, 800 pages, monumental biography translated and reprinted several times in Italy (again) by Minimum Fax. She will be the one holding his hand on February 17, 1982, the last day.

So bebop. But not only. For Monk to be able to cross staves and styles with an admirable technique and a pianistic dedication as a worker and philosopher. At the same time, he can play, smoke, use a handkerchief to wipe away the sweat and mark the piano’s 88 keys with “rake hands”. From his first deal with Blue Note to hits with Columbia, Monk’s musical history is an irresistible upswing. Slowly, but relentlessly. He prefers his own compositions to standards, pieces marked by an inimitable tone: his own. Pieces that even today are a living being, a pulsating matter. And smiles to the side. From melancholy of Ruby my dear at the white heat of Well, you do not have tofrom the urban fresco of ‘Around midnight to the swirling beauty of Evidence. They are compositions that seem to come from another world. They are games, great jokes, they are transparent ropes to make people stumble. And so here are the series that chase each other Four in one and horns and motor arrhythmias Little Rootie Tootie dedicated to the son. Monk writes, writes everything down in a notebook he carries in his coat pocket. And it shares with friends and colleagues. Art Blakey above all, a boastful, muscular, smart drummer. And then there is the infinite number of saxophonists, a small mirror, a little reverb, a little spring. Masters and brothers: Coltrane the train, Sonny Rollins the talkative, Coleman Hawkins the father, Gigi Gryce the shy, Gerry Mulligan the imperious and more than any other Charlie Rouse, accomplice. Melodious sax.

There are men and women to mark this story. One is Orrin Keepnews, journalist, became a producer and mentor for a brand new brand: Riverside. Orrin does not explain why so much talent is almost invisible to the public. So in 1955 he tried the cards of the opposition. As Laurent de Ville writes “the lunar monk who fights with the solar duke”. He snatches it from Prestige, redeems it for $ 108, which puts him under contract. The first record is Thelonious which pays tribute to Ellington. Bingo. The circle that closes. For the boy from San Juan Hill is the Duke’s daring eldest son. The only one who can lead Ellington’s pianism (and all the oscillations) towards pure mathematics, the only one who can impress on perfect symmetry even at the most angled intervals. So the big niggle in the hat starts to break through. Two years later comes the masterpiece Brilliant corners, opera played in unison. No interaction. A breath, a voice. Eerie. Liquid marble. A collective madness: Max Roach who falls in love with the eardrums, Monk who finds a celesta in the studio and refuses to put it in the record. A masterpiece. The success. What years, what America, what extraordinary benefactors. Monk, like Charlie Parker, is also in the Baroness’s good graces Pannonica de Koenigswarter, Nica for friends, passionate about jazz and cats. Their friendship will be epic and total. Definitive. And then Teo Macero, head of Columbia and composer, an intelligent white man, who decides to produce it. It’s the highlight of Monk’s career. It’s the 1960s and the world has changed. So changed that it can be accommodated Monk’s dream his best-selling album, so changed from deserves Monk on the cover of Time. There are tours now, and photographers and people standing in line to listen to him, see Thelonious’ latest headdress up close.

The cover that Time dedicated to Monk in 1964

Who knows what Thelonious’s dream is in the 70’s, who knows if it’s a nightmare or a brooding fever, kept in check and exploding. Because at a certain point, the entire Monk’s microcosm collapses, what the artist has built chord after chord, night after night, endless workouts and very hard work. Suddenly. The piano ceases to exist. Melodiös leaves and goes to psychiatric clinics. Bipolarism is the diagnosis. He goes to bed, salts, overwinters, chooses hibernation. Get rid of the hat. The pinched fingers, the tight voice in his throat. The seclusion between Monk and the world, first a rift, becomes a rift. He took refuge for a decade in Nica’s home in Weehawken, New Jersey. In the room he has a Steinway with a tail that does not touch, the opposite of what had happened to Bud Powell who had gone crazy and desperate to draw the keys in black and white on the walls of the asylum.
The music is over. Monk, Bebop’s high priest, is a large and mysterious fish, stranded in the folds of a dark sea, without waves. A calm, smelly and deadly sea.

One day he said, “The world’s loudest sound is silence.”. He was wrong. The loudest sound in the world is a woman’s laugh, it’s a child’s heartbeat on a swing, it’s the breath of a jazz giant who runs, laughs, touches God, dances and after 40 years is still here. To make us dizzy. Big and heavy. Inevitable. Monk, in a word.

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