I Never Met Thelonious Monk, But . . .

The front cover of the author's copy of Criss-Cross.
The front cover of the author’s copy of Criss-Cross.

I loved Thelonious Monk’s music from the first time I heard it, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. The year was 1964, maybe ’65. I was a high school senior entranced by rock and roll, R & B, some folk music, and by standards singers such as Sinatra and Bennett. But not by jazz, which was foreign territory to me at that time. My high school buddy Dave had just obtained his New York State driver’s license and one day informed me that he was going to take a ride to a local Sam Goody’s, a popular record store chain that sadly is no longer with us. For whatever reason, I didn’t accompany him. Dave asked me if I wanted anything from Goody’s. I must have been feeling adventurous because I requested a jazz album. Any jazz album would do, since I didn’t know one from another. The record that Dave a day or two later placed in my hands was Criss-Cross, Monk’s 1963 release. I doubt if I had ever heard of Monk before, though he was one of the most famous jazz pianists in the world. And I doubt if Dave knew much about him either. How, then, had Dave come to select this album, which to this day I consider to be magnificent? I don’t know. Dave possessed powerful intuitive talents, still does, and it seems that choosing great music from out of the blue was one of them. On the other hand, maybe he just liked the album’s cover. It is très cool.

I listened to jazz in small amounts over the next few years and in 1969 began to become the jazzhead that I am when I started heavily to inhale the outpourings of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and an ocean of others. And Thelonious Monk too, of course. Monk is one of my all-time favorites.

There’s something peaceful about Monk’s playing, even on the upbeat numbers. Something mesmerizing. Something irresistible in the way he’d offer the unexpected note, the tantalizing trill. Monk had an instantly recognizable sound on the piano, an intriguingly off-center approach. He didn’t play overly fast, just fast enough, and he put his heart and soul on display. He didn’t compose a lot of tunes (73 is the official count), but the unadorned and undeniable beauty of many of his compositions have connected with millions of listeners and with his peers. During the 1980s and ’90s it seemed that every month brought forth a new Monk tribute album. Even now, many jazz albums include one or two Monk works. Great compositions such as ‘Round Midnight, In Walked Bud, Ruby My Dear, Hackensack. Monk died in 1982, and remains a giant.

Thelonious Monk was someone I wish I had met and talked to, though I gather he wasn’t a man of many words, at least at times. I suspect that his song titles indicate this. Fifty of the 73 are either one or two words in length. Still, how fine would it have been to ask Thelonious Monk some questions: Have your piano practice habits changed over the years? Which of your songs mean the most to you? Do you ever listen to Top 40 radio? As a New Yorker, whom do you like best, the Yankees or the Mets?

But I never met Monk. In the 1960s and ’70s, however, three people I knew had up-close Monk experiences, which as a Monk fan I always have looked upon fondly. And in a sense have made my own. The earliest involved one of my high school friends, a young lady. We had graduated in 1965, and soon after that she and her family moved from Long Island to an apartment building in Manhattan near Lincoln Center. Amazingly, this was the building in which Thelonious Monk and his family resided, and had for years. More amazingly, my friend and her family occupied an apartment either directly above or below the Monk pad, I’m not sure which. I recall my classmate telling me, not long after our high school careers ended, that she often would hear Monk playing the piano, which, to say the least, was incredible to me. And enviable.

Back cover of the author's copy of Criss-Cross.
The back cover of the author’s copy of Criss-Cross.

The second occasion involved my friend Dave, who got my Monk ball rolling, with Criss-Cross, in the first place. He once had a brief encounter with the man. Dave thinks the meeting took place in 1966 or ’67. The location was a New York City subway car on which Dave spotted somebody who looked awfully familiar. This somebody was clothed in what Dave described to me as pajamas. Pajamas? Sure, why not? Intrepid soul that Dave was and is, he walked over and asked “Are you Thelonious Monk?” “Yeah, I’m the Monk,” came the reply. End of conversation.

The third Monk event was the topper. My mother was part of it, and I was there when it happened. The month was March, the year was 1976. WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station that programmed jazz in its classic and far-out varieties, was holding a Thelonious Monk marathon, playing his recordings nonstop over a multiday period. I imagine that the station’s intense tribute was timed to coincide with a concert by Monk and his band that same month at Carnegie Hall. My mother was a devoted jazz fan and WKCR listener because her son (my brother) Richard was in attendance at Columbia and was a WKCR jazz DJ. As such, he was on the air for portions of the Monk fest. But not on the evening in question, during which I sat with my mother in the kitchen of her Long Island home as the Monk celebration emanated from a small radio on a counter between the sink and the stove. Concerned about others as she always was, she said something like “I wonder if Thelonious Monk knows what KCR is doing.”

She went to the telephone and dialed 411, the number for directory assistance. Did Monk have a listed number? Somewhat surprisingly, he did. My mother called. Someone on the other end picked up. “Is this Mr. Monk?” she asked. “Yes,” was the reply. “Hello,” my mother said. “I wanted to ask if you know that WKCR is playing all of your music. It’s a wonderful tribute.” “Yes, thank you,” replied Thelonious Monk. My mother probably then complimented Monk on his talents, and Monk probably said “thank you” again. And that was that. I sat there semi-stunned. My mother, to my recollection, had never done anything like this before. She keenly followed the world of celebrities, but always from afar. Of all the stars that she admired, from Mary Tyler Moore to Lena Horne to Paul Newman, I never would have guessed that her one personal contact would be with a jazz pianist.

I was a mere bystander to my mother’s bold move. I, however, had one engaging and in-person Monk experience of my own. This occurred on March 26, 1976 from a balcony seat  at Thelonious’ aforementioned concert at Carnegie Hall. Sitting next to me were my brother Richie and his wife-to-be, Sara. I can’t recall if the performance took place just before or after my mother’s conversation with Monk. Likely, after. Monk didn’t play often in public those days, so the Carnegie gig was a highly anticipated event. In fact, two appearances in July of that year would be his last ever. He was on stage with four musicians, including his son T.S. Monk on drums. Thelonious said little, maybe nothing, to the audience. What mattered was his playing, and he was in superb form. Strong, poignant, totally on the money. His fingers did the talking.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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