I first met Thelonious Monk who died yesterday at the age of 64 early in 1948, when we were both in our twenties and our lives in jazz were in very formative stages. The meeting took place at the New York home of Alfred Lion, the owner of Blue Note records, which was becoming an important part of the modern jazz scene. The occasion was to bring together pianist Monk, who had just completed his first recordings as a leader -- and the new staff of an extremely esoteric little jazz magazine called The Record Changer, of which I had just become managing editor -- although I wasn't being paid. We sat down to an interview in which (largely because I didn't know any better) a young, traditional-minded jazz writer succeeded in extracting facts and opinions from a young musical revolutionary who was already legendary as a laconic eccentric.
The result was a magazine article which read, in part:
Monk started taking piano lesons at 11 and two years later was playing solo dates at local parties and speakeasys. From the first, he says, "No written music sounded right" to him, although he obviously listened intently to the Ellington band of that day.
Monk is a quiet self-contained and soft-spoken fellow who doesn't seem too anxious to recall those first jobs in "juice joints" where he made $17 a week and where people kept wanting him to play "straight."
"There are a lot of things you can't remember," he said, "except the heckling."
Monk later informed me that this was the first piece about him published anywhere. Behind the dark glasses, goatee and sleepy attitude was a man who was aware and appreciative of just about everything going on around him -- and this first interview led rather directly to one of the most significant working associations of my career as a record producer.
Although Monk's importance in the early emergence of bop should have ranked him alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, far too many people wrote him off as an eccentric mumbler and an unskilled pianist.
In 1951, an arrest on a minor narcotics charge led to a major setback. Under then-existing police regulations, Monk was denied the "cabaret card" that was a necessary license for performing in New York City. By 1955, he was impoverished and feeling bitter, a prophet without much honor in any country, usually not able to work and virtually ignored by his record company in favor of such bigger sellers as the Modern Jazz Quartet and Miles Davis.
Although Monk had made several eventually memorable records (but definitely not immediate hits), had composed the beautiful and lastingly celebrated " 'Round Midnight" and had moved on to Prestige Records, he had also begun to suffer under a heavy load of cute publicity; the labeling of this angular, jagged, admittedly difficult piano stylist as "The High Priest of Bop" seemed to turn off potential listeners. Many musicians, and most critics, found it easier to put down Monk's personal version of be-bop than to try to understand it.
Right around this time, I had plunged fully into the jazz world as cofounder of Riverside Records, which concentrated on reissues of 1920s rareties by Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and Jelly Roll Morton, but was also interested in dealing with contemporary music. Nat Hentoff, one of the few critics with an early apppreciation of Monk, tipped us off to the fact that Prestige Records might be quite willing to turn Monk loose, although not if they knew he had a rival company waiting for him. We consulted with Monk, who remembered our interview, and expressed his willingness to gamble with our fledgling label.
His record company only wanted repayment of money they had advanced him. I still have on my office wall the framed original letter from them to him, stating "With receipt of your cash for $108.27 issued against your recordings, we are releasing you of your exclusive recording contract for Prestige Records."
In the six-year artist-producer relationship between Monk and myself, some albums that I remain proud of, the establishment of Riverside as a thriving label, and the beginning of long overdue recognition for Monk came to pass. But first a nerve-wracking instant apprenticeship. I was in a new role as record producer, and I had enrolled myself in a very tough school. Once again, as with the 1948 interview, I succeeded largely because I didn't know enough to be afraid.
On the subject of surviving Monk, he is most kindly descibed as vastly eccentric. The basic problems were: "Would he be at the recording session at all? Would he be prepared to play? Would he be in the mood to play? Would he insist on performing material that the other musicians, regardless of their great aptitude, would find impossible to play?" One great advantage of such basic training, of course, is that having experienced Monk at the start of my career, I could never thereafter be frightened by any musician.
We went on to do a dozen albums together, in a great variety of settings from solo to big band, in collaboration with such giants as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Gerry Mulligan, Coleman Hawkins, Max Roach and Art Blakey. My role, as I saw it, was to provide optimum conditions for the expression of his creativity. It seemed to work. The public, worldwide, began to listen. People began to realize that Monk really wasn't frightening, but was simply a great creative artist to whom you had to be willing to pay attention.
He was also a wonderful performer; a colorful dresser who often left the piano to accompany a band member with some improvised dance steps. And in 1958, the cabaret card restriction finally having been lifted, New York audiences were able to see him in action on a regular basis. His year-long stand at the Five-Spot club, much of the time in collaboration with the incredibly talented John Coltrane, spurred great recognition.
Eventually and inevitably, a much bigger record company beckoned. Monk's advisers moved him to Columbia, and we ceased to be a working team. Without that bond, we had little contact over the years, and so it is not easy for me to discuss his illness or his self-imposed exile during the last several years. My best guess is that he got tired. When the changing tides of public and record company tastes seemed to be turning away from him, he didn't want to go through the battle all over again.
My last words with him were almost two years ago. On a trip to New York from my home in San Francisco, I telephoned him and, as I recall, the conversation went very much like this:
"Thelonious, are you touching the piano at all these days?"
"No, I'm not."
"Do you want to get back to playing?"
"No, I don't."
"I'm only in town for a few days; would you like me to come and visit, to talk about the old days?"
"No, I wouldn't."
When I repeated this to Barry Harris, the pianist who was much closer to him than almost anyone else in the last years, he said, "You're lucky. You got complete sentences. With most people he just says, 'No.' "
It is sad that this great artist ended his life saying "no." But we can counterbalance this negativity by turning back -- particularly to the '50s and '60s -- when his wonderfully sardonic, brilliantly eccentric and often lyrical music was very definitely saying "Yes."