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Interviewing T.S. Monk is akin to setting a car on cruise control at the outset of an 800-mile trip. You know that you really don't have to do much except glance up every few minutes to make sure you're still on the road. The 48-year-old drummer, and son of legendary jazz pianist-composer Thelonious Monk, may be as noted for his verbal gifts as for his considerable timekeeping skills. A week before our interview, a publicist at his record label advised/warned me that "T.S. likes to talk," hinting that it might be a good idea to set aside an afternoon for this chat.
Sure enough, Monk waxes eloquent on any number of music-related subjects. When he gets really stirred up--like he does when pondering the current state of jazz--his booming voice takes on the dramatic cadences of a political candidate on the stump or a preacher on a Sunday morning.
Some find irony in the son of such a notoriously enigmatic, mysterious figure being so loquacious, but the younger Monk is quick to tell people that his dad--who died in 1982 after a prolonged mental dissipation--loved people, and was actually a great talker when the vibes were right. But he seems to reserve his greatest appreciation for all the things his father didn't say, and all the things he didn't do. For instance, when a young T.S. decided to pick up drums, dad never voiced one word of complaint when his son loudly bashed his kit for hours a day in the next room. Thelonious never told him he was good, he never told him he was bad, he simply allowed his son to develop in his own way. When T.S. turned 20, his father came to him and asked, "Are you ready to play?" and two days later, T.S. was playing in his dad's band for a Malcolm X birthday edition of the national TV show Soul. Thelonious never took his son aside and offered him special rehearsal time for the show. He simply assumed that his son could handle the gig, the same way he always assumed that his sidemen would rise to the occasion. Some would consider the experience a brutal trial by fire, but T.S. chooses to see it as a telling demonstration of his dad's love for him.
"It made me realize that he was such a marvelous guy, because if you really want to do for your son in your craft, then you do the same things you did for your best students," Monk says. "You don't change the formula. And he didn't change the formula for me, and I'm eternally grateful, because everything about the musician I am today is the result of the way he treated me in the context of the music."
The younger Monk admits to being obsessive about critical reaction to his work, driven to work himself to a level where critics will find no room for complaint. It's the kind of obsessiveness that comes naturally when you inherit the weight of a name like Monk. If stardom is an intrinsically fickle mistress, it's a regular stroll on the beach compared to what gets passed on to fame's next generation. The famous must always wonder if people are genuinely interested in them or merely enraptured with their public image, but their children must carry the burden of a name they did nothing to earn, and expectations they can never fulfill. Just ask Julian Lennon or Frank Sinatra Jr.
T.S. Monk is well aware of the pitfalls. For years, friends and advisers encouraged him to put together a tribute project for his father. For years, T.S. resisted. It wasn't because he didn't love his dad's music, or appreciate his legacy, he just believed that he needed to approach the mythical Monk canon from a position of strength.
"They said, 'You need to do a thing of your father's music,'" Monk says. "At that time, I thought it would keep the focus on my father, and everyone will say, 'This Thelonious Monk Jr., he's a real nice guy, and he made a real nice record, and he's got Herbie Hancock and all these wonderful people on it. I wonder what he does.'"
Monk believed he needed to assemble a band of unknowns until he had enough credibility in the jazz world to tackle his father's legacy, without being swamped by it. So he devoted five years to touring the world with his sextet, releasing three well-received albums on the Blue Note label. When his Blue Note contract expired after the 1995 release of The Charm, Monk felt he was finally ready for the project that had long seemed inevitable.
"I was basically looking to switch record companies, and although my name is Monk, and it would not be difficult for me to find a deal, I wanted to have a product, because I think that a product is what really drives a deal, and makes people do what they say they're gonna do," Monk says. "People sign all kinds of contracts, but there's no real incentive for people to fulfill their contracts. The only real incentive is a great product. So I felt I needed a great product, and I felt I'd spent the past five years establishing myself as a bandleader and as an artist, and now I had the credibility to be able to pick up the phone and call the people that I called and they would come."