That phrase – “lateral intelligence” – is one applied to Monk by Gary Giddins, and it seems to me a tidy summation of what I’m grasping at here, namely Monk’s unique sense of tone and harmony, his innate take on a tune, which seems to approach it in the conventional manner, only a few degrees to the left.
His stamp: notes and tempi peculiarly askew, imbued with an angularity, a cockeyed but unmistakably authentic way of looking at the world. The tradition (blues / gospel / stride / barrelhouse/ swing / bop) refracted. Melodic narrative as image carved from negative space, leaving the listener to infer the line, a task which, once one is familiar with the pianist’s dialect, he or she never fails to do. It seems that once shown the method, the particular way of squinting into this light, it stays with you for life. You don’t simply hear Monk for the first time, you get initiated (indoctrinated?).
The question of whether or not the term “genius” truly applies is misdirected. First off, as a query it’s problematic at the best of times; we’re almost certainly not dealing with the same definition. I have no clue what the man’s IQ might have been. But whether Monk was vastly more intelligent than 99.9% of composers, or just a uniquely strange individual is a distinction not worth debating. The irrefutable answer lies in both his modestly sized but incredibly important songbook, and in his peerless piano technique. At one point in time, the accepted line on Monk was that he was a hell of a composer but a speciously equipped player. Horseshit. Listen to his recordings of “Blue Monk,” or “Epistrophy.” Listen to “Rhythm-a-ning.” Listen to the piano alone. Surely those examples are enough to squelch debate. Such personalized invention, such offhand beauty and unmistakable individuality are rare in this world. Monk is like no one else. No one is Monk. To hear a half a chorus by his hand, as well as by his pen, is to know right off who you’re listening to.
He straddled several epochs of jazz, by virtue of his age, and as a result he was subject to a harsh progression of criticism. When he debuted, he was too far out. As time wore and jazz changed, he wasn’t far enough out. But the truth is that he was ever in an orbit all his own.
This clip shows Monk and his quartet playing his “Evidence.” It was that tune which I chose to use to illustrate the point that, while many play Monk compositions, nobody plays ‘em like Monk. After airing a version by Monk and a quartet similar to the one pictured above (Rouse on tenor again, with Larry Gales on bass and Ben Riley on drums) from the ’64 Monterey Jazz Festival, I played three other versions of the same tune: one by Monk’s pal Bud Powell and trio from 1962; another by Steve Lacy and Don Cherry from an album of Monk tunes (Evidence, 1961), and; a take on the tune by ex-Police-man Andy Summers, from a Monk tribute album he cut after that "English reggae" band called it quits, but before the current reunion tour. Those artists pull off their versions with varying degrees of success, but they all speak to the same essential fact: Thelonious Monk graced the world with a singular and endlessly playable catalog of compositions, but he didn’t spawn a legion of sound-alike players. His style is simply too distinctive, too idiosyncratic, too signature. Anyone attempting to sound just like Monk would be (and should be) shouted off stage.
Was his a self-conscious modernism? Did his off-kilter rhythms and plink-plonky phrasings (his wife, Nellie, called him Melodious Thunk) speak his thoughts on life in the Atomic Age? Did he mean the weather beaten romance tucked behind each and every note to express his anxiety concerning (or indeed to combat) all that uncertainty and dread?
I tend to think not. I think Monk saw himself as a musician in the tradition of James P. Johnson and a composer in the vein of Ellington, or perhaps, more modestly, Count Basie. He wrote tunes, many of them based on the changes or melodies of other songs. And he played them, using a technique which blended many of the sounds which preceded him. But he had such an innate individuality, a downright delightful strangeness about him that couldn’t help but come out in his playing. His sound was all his, and it surfaced at a pivotal moment in jazz, at the half-lit early dawn of bop. He was celebrated by those whose opinions mattered most, and derided by others, both of which stoked the fire in his belly. And by the time anybody outside of Harlem knew his name, he was forged in stone, fully formed and never to change, the musician we now know from our backward-looking vantage. The incomparable. The individual. Monk.