Thelonious, the Onliest
The Thelonious Monk Reader
Rob van der Bliek
Oxford Univ Press
The “Reader” series on great jazz artists is a great idea, and the continuation of the project in the subject of Thelonious Sphere Monk is particularly welcome.
“The Thelonious Monk Reader,” (Oxford University Press, 286 pages) compiled and edited by Rob van der Bliek brings us a collection of written works about one of the people most responsible for the jazz revolution known as bebop that started in the 1940s.
Surprisingly, there have been relatively few books written about Monk, in comparison with many of the other greats of is ear. Too often when referring to the creation of bebop – now considered mainstream jazz, the music’s most influential and pervasive countenance — Charlie Parker’s name is solely mentioned.
Certainly, Bird’s genius is not to be discounted, but arguably Monk’s influence was even greater. He and Gillespie should commonly share that top billing (though, surely, there were others, like Kenny Clarke).
”I learned most everything from Dizzy and Monk,” Miles Davis, who worked with Bird during a very fertile period, once said.
Monk was certainly the most unique of his crowd. Hell, he’s one of the most unique of all music makers. His compositions are beloved by listeners as well as musicians, even those who still can’t get used to his idiosyncratic piano style. In his very first sentence, van der Bliek speaks well in saying that originality is the most desirable characteristic in a jazz musician.
Originality is a good one-word sum for Monk; The Onliest Monk the most apropos wordplay on his name.
Like other parts of the Reader series, this one brings together a variety of shorter essays and articles, even parts of books, about the subject into one place. The difficult job the editor goes through to do this makes it extremely easy for us to now find varied slants, opinions, musings and diatribes about the subject. It’s a valuable resource, and van der Bliek did a fine job.
Monk was not a great interview, his communication style nearly as eccentric, one could say creative, as his pianistics. But the interviews that appear in many articles are interesting.
Of course one of the main features is the famed 1964 Time magazine cover piece that was criticized by some jazz journalists (those works also contained in the book). In retrospect, at least, the piece holds up and its criticism seem pale. Yet even those criticisms raise interesting points and put it in historical context.
The 39 pieces of writing include colorful portraits of Monk and his music and the editor’s opening comments to each are helpful. It’s interesting to see how often the enigmatic Monk is referred to as the High Priest of Bebop or the Mad Monk of jazz. It’s also fascinating to read about how people found his music hard to get used to, and his odd piano style off-putting to many. That doesn’t seem to be the case today (thankfully!).
There are knowledgeable pieces on the core of Monk’s contributions and how he always tried to be original. Many of these are entertaining as well as informative.
Among the favorites: Monk’s “Blindfold Test” for Downbeat (Try not to laugh – with Monk, not at him – just imagining Leonard Feather’s frustration in trying to elicit more mainstream answers); Ira Gitler and Nat Hentoff interviews; remembrances and reflections by Gene Santoro and Orin Keepnews.
Readers preferences will vary, like opinions of Monk’s tunes, but the segments consistently hold interest and show different facets. The book is a valuable resource, constantly engaging, and can be read ... well ... straight, no chaser.