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Genius of Modern Music: Volume 1, Thelonious Monk

Blue Note, recorded in 1947 and first released in 1951

Track Listing: 1. ’Round Midnight , 2. Off Minor, 3. Ruby My Dear, 4. I Mean You, 5. Thelonious, 6. Epistrophy, 7. Well You Needn’t, 8. Misterio

Pause. I temporarily stop Charlotte Zwerin’s documentary, Straight No Chaser, to do a quick Internet search on Pannonica de Koenigswarter. I am fascinated by her role in Thelonious Monk’s story and want to discover more about her.

“London (CNN)—The jazz record was only three minutes long, but it was enough time to cast a spell on a wealthy European heiress who became determined to meet the artist behind the beautiful ballad with the haunting overtones.

That record was “’Round Midnight,” by a relatively unknown jazz pianist Thelonious Monk and hearing it would herald the start of a life-long friendship between him and heiress Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter.”

-from “The glamorous heiress who devoted her life to jazz” by Stephanie Busari, CNN and Tara Kelly for CNN, updated May 2, 2013.

Resume. If you were to ask for the time, what other answer could there be? With Monk at the controls and Friday’s fade into Saturday now officially in the books, there is only one answer to give. In Chicago jazz clubs, cabarets, and my living room too, it’s ’round midnight as I am writing this now, putting it all down as fast it comes. My own liner notes, a short summary of the doc, call it what whatever you want just don’t make me stop. For that matter, don’t make me sing, don’t make sing. Sorry. Kristen Wiig reference. Should probably edit that out but I am subscribing to the Monk method of getting it down first take because that’s the one that’s really alive. Second take, okay maybe, but it has already started to lose itself in the dissolve.

This method of recording seemed to mirror Monk himself in that he was a man who was strikingly present in the here and now, a conduit attracting all the energy around him into the vessel of his being, so much that it could trip his circuits and send him into something of a trance, like when he would suddenly stand up from the piano bench and spin around in circles, lost in his own head or lost in the music or who knows where as the others played on. And then he would return, making his way back from deep inside the rhythms of another plane of existence. Resuming, Monk’s fingers now back on the keyboard and at one with the instrument that seemed made for him and him alone, all to begin another furious cycle that just might blast him off into his own orbit all over again.

He was one cool cat. Even his name radiated cool straight down to the bone. Thelonious Sphere Monk. And really, that’s the way it should be for someone credited with nothing short of laying down the foundation of an entirely new sound, bebop.

He played with an easy fury, inserting his will with a signature style and fluctuating waves of emotion. He was a master of the keys, his fingers scampering about and owning each and every last inch of the Steinway & Sons 88. Pause. A quick stall as his fingers now hold the silence that is circumventing the stream-of-conscience syncopation going down around him and it. Resume. Monk slips back seamlessly into the song.

I learn he was a complex individual, often withdrawn, facts that certainly jive with the footage of him pacing and circling, pacing and circling, escaping into his own thoughts on a dime. They say he lived like he played, a modern man adrift in the modern world. He was perhaps bipolar, prone to varying bouts depression and euphoria alike. I am feeling closer with each passing insight, each run of the keys.

I observe that, beyond Monk himself, there was no greater contributor to his story than his ever faithful and loving wife, Nellie. In my mind, a common refrain is reprised: Behind every great man, an even greater woman, a spouse to keep things in check. Pause. Another search.

“Of all the stories about jazz musicians who cannot quite handle worldly matters and the companions who manage their lives, the long love affair of Thelonious and Nellie Monk may be the most famous.”

-from “Nellie Monk, 80, Wife, Muse And Mainstay of a Jazz Legend” by Ben Ratliff, The New York Times, June 27, 2002.

A pattern emerges. To delve into any of the fascinating aspects of Monk’s life and to learn more about the artist, the man, and the many great people paramount in his rich history, I understand that I have much reading and listening on tap. Like finding out more about the time Monk met John Coltrane in 1958 at the Five Spot in the Bowery neighborhood under the Third Avenue El. A six month run ensued, with the two towering figures in jazz clicking instantaneously. I am anxious to get my hands on the 1961 release, Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane.

Yes, I have a lot of exploring to do and endless hours of recordings to enjoy. I start with Genius of Modern Music: Volume I, knowing full well that the spellbinding sounds therein only begin to scratch the surface.