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."
For the tribute-album project, titled Monk on Monk, Thelonious' son managed to blend the talents of heavyweight icons like Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Roy Hargrove, and Ron Carter with his own, by now well-seasoned, sextet.
"If I hadn't approached my father's music on the level that I did it, and have it come out as good as it did, I would be drummed out of the business. I love my father, I know exactly who he is, and just how important he is. Real Elvis fans can't stand Elvis impersonators. They wanna hear the real thing, or they wanna hear something that's really dealing with the issue of what he had to put down. That's what I wanted to do, and it took five years to get there."
For Monk on Monk, T.S. went back to a pair of his father's live albums, 1959's Town Hall Concert and the 1963 In Concert, both of which employed the arrangements of Hall Overton to gracefully take Monk's music into big-band settings. T.S. looked upon those records as "all-time classics," because they exploited the full harmonic range of Thelonious' palette, from the deep lows of the tuba to the winsome highs of a clarinet. So T.S., with his arranger Don Sickler, worked up the idea of a tentet, which would allow him to use his entire band, and add superstars to the mix for splashes of sonic coloring. The tentet approach helped set the album apart from the parade of Monk tributes that have surfaced since Thelonious' death.
The first, and possibly most renowned, was Hal Willner's 1984 collection, That's the Way I Feel Now. Since then, the floodgates have opened up, with Monk tributes from artists as disparate as Jerry Gonzalez, Danilo Perez, Joshua Breakstone, the Bill Holman Band, and producer Joel Dorn. Clearly, the interest in Thelonious was there, but T.S. knew that his album had to be special. The resounding positive reaction upon the album's release last summer has amazed him.
"I never dreamed that it would turn out this successful, particularly with the live show," he says. "I knew there was a tremendous amount of interest in Thelonious, his legend has grown geometrically in the last decade or so, but I didn't expect that the response to the live show would be as good as it has. It's certainly been marvelous, and I'm delighted and humbled at the same time, and as far as I'm concerned, it's just dad continuing to protect me."
Thelonious' catalogue is so eclectic that whittling down the essence of his work to a single CD is impossible. So T.S. decided that he needed a theme to unify the songs he picked for the tribute album. He thought about his father's tendency to write songs for people he liked, and chose to make Monk on Monk a collection of tunes Thelonious had written specifically for those close to him: For example, the romantic "Crepuscule With Nellie" was written for Monk's wife, "Jackie-ing" for a niece, "Boo Boo's Birthday" for Monk's daughter Barbara, and "Little Rootie Tootie" for T.S., when he was a mere toddler.
More than most Monk tributes, Monk on Monk drives home the idea that Thelonious was a composer who imprinted his personal stamp on every angular chord change he devised. T.S. confesses that he'd "never thought of [the songs] as a body of work" before undertaking Monk on Monk. He argues persuasively that the "high priest of bebop" title bestowed on his father was too limiting, and too dated, to encompass the timeless sweep of Thelonious' music.
"If you go through his catalogue, as I did for the Monk on Monk project, you get hard-pressed to find these bebop tunes," he says. "Bird wrote bebop tunes, Bud Powell wrote bebop tunes. Thelonious Monk wrote 'Ruby My Dear,' 'Round Midnight,' these fantastic compositions. Almost like a Stevie Wonder of jazz."
Among the compositions showcased on the tribute album is a previously unreleased swing number called "Two Timer." Built upon a sly takeoff on Ellington's "Satin Doll"--played on the album by Herbie Hancock--this obscure number offers fresh evidence of what made Thelonious inimitable. His command of the jazz tradition was complete, incorporating the achievements of Ellington and Art Tatum, yet he managed to bend these ideas into a prismatic framework that was independent of any musical movements or trends. That's why Monk could cover a standard like Eubie Blake's "Memories of You" and maintain the integrity of the classic melody, while making you feel as though you were hearing the song for the first time.
T.S. looks upon the genius of his father, and other jazz greats, as a knack for storytelling. In his mind, the ability to tell a musical story has gradually been lost by jazz musicians during the last 30 years.
"We all use the same words," he says. "I could tell a story, and you could tell a story, using exactly the same words. And you might tell it in a fashion that moves a crowd of 5,000 to cry, and I could tell it to those same people and they may not pay attention at all.
"Often younger jazz musicians understand the concept of playing it differently, but they don't understand the concept of using the same words or the same building blocks," he says. "This is why you have so many young players who don't move you. And you say, 'God damn, this guy sure plays fast and he can play three million notes. Why is it that when he plays fast and three million notes, it don't do nothing for me, and when Coltrane plays fast and three million notes, I'm moved to the next dimension?' It's because Coltrane has a reason for playing three million notes; his story requires it. And the other guy, he ain't got no story."
Monk sees himself as one of the few remaining jazz musicians who studied at the feet of the masters. After playing with his father for a couple of years in the early '70s, he drifted into R&B, largely because he was disillusioned with the state of jazz, and believed there was no room for young lions trying to find their voices. He gave up drums in 1984, after two of his bandmates--Yvonne Fletcher, and his sister Barbara--both died of breast cancer within four months of each other. In 1986, he helped establish the Monk Institute of Jazz in Washington, D.C., and eventually he was persuaded to play for some of the students. It led to a feverish period of woodshedding, and a second wind for a career that he'd given up on. Maybe, on some level, his experience at the institute convinced T.S. that he had something to contribute, a philosophy to pass on, the way Archie Roach--at Thelonious' request--had passed on his wisdom to a young T.S., by giving him drum lessons.
"In the context of this music, lessons is about the hang," Monk says. "Because the hang is about learning the philosophy. Technique is calisthenics. You practice a scale long enough, you play it faster and faster.
"You have a lot of young musicians right now with enormous technique, they've got technique and facility that Bird and Coltrane didn't have, but they can't tell a story, because they don't know the philosophy. So the issue of the philosophy is really what's important, y'dig, and that's what you learn when you get to hang with a Max Roach, when you get to set up his drums and break down his drums, and sit down and talk with him."
T.S. Monk is scheduled to perform on Friday, February 27, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts. Showtime is 8 p.m.
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