The original draft of Thelonious Monk was much longer than the published. In fact, I cut out some 70,000 at the behest of my editor, much of it focused on the music. Not surprisingly, a few critics and most of my friends wanted more discussion of Monk’s music, not less. So I decided to include a few excerpts from the original manuscript that might be of interest. Warning: these are unedited sections and I left them pretty much as is.
–Robin D. G. Kelley
The Blue Note Sessions
The trio presents two vastly different readings of Vernon Duke’s “April in Paris.” The master take, which at 3:20 is the longest recording of both sessions, is taken at a slower pace. It almost drags, with Blakey chomping at the bit—after the chorus he slips into doublet-time for a few measures but Monk’s not going for it. And Monk’s playing seems a bit more tentative, though it’s always thoughtful. The alternate is the more exciting version, with Blakey picking up the tempo and pushing more forcefully and Monk dancing all over the piano with both hands. Monk was also finally able to put down the tune he had written some time ago he had once called “What Now” but retitled “Off Minor”—appropriately named because it starts in G-minor and never resolves to the tonic. The melody was not entirely Monk’s, however. Monk evidently “borrowed” part of the A-section from his dear friend Elmo Hope. Since they’ve known each other since at least 1941, we don’t know how long the melody had been floating around. Coincidentally, it was their mutual friend Bud Powell who first recorded it back in January of 1947 with a trio consisting of Max Roach and Curley Russell. In Bud’s hands, the song is a serious affair, swift, smoothed out but retains the dark minor sonorities. In Monk’s hands, “Off Minor” is more humor than pathos. He slows the pace and allows us to hear the notes ring by giving us more space. The dissonance and angularity are over the top, and Monk deliberately roughs it up. And yet there is nothing accidental about what he plays—we know because he sings each and every note.
Before Blue Note showed up at Monk’s doorstep, he dreamed of making new music, departing from the direction Dizzy and Bird were heading. These recordings represent a significant departure from what had become the dominant paradigm for modern jazz, or so-called bebop. Ironically, the most creative, imaginative, and challenging composition he recorded on October 24th did not see the light of day for another nine years! “Introspection,” which took four frustrating takes to produce an acceptable version, was unlike anything that came before it—as fresh and original as “’Round Midnight.” It embodied the most radical elements of Monk’s approach to composition and improvisation. It was the song that could have thrown down the gauntlet to bebop artists, demanding a complete shift from established changes and demonstrations of virtuosity to harmonic and rhythmic freedom. Built on an AABA structure 36 measures long (he added four bars to the final A section), it possesses many of the most startling examples of “Monkish” elements. It contains numerous examples of rhythmic displacement that gives a sense of shifting time signatures. It has no tonal center and is built on whole tone harmony as well as chromatic motion, creating a kind of wandering chordal movement that resolves in the first A section in D Major, and the final A section in Db Major.
On “Monk’s Moods” Thelonious assigns the melody to the horns while he fills in with lovely yet dissonant embellishments. On “’Round Midnight,” Monk himself plays most of the melody while he arranged the horns to provide the underlying harmonies along with melodic interjections. The arrangement is spectacular and proves beyond a shadow of a doubt who birthed this composition and what it ought to sound like. Even Dizzy Gillespie’s prelude, which Monk incorporates, has been altered, condensed and made less theatrical. In Monk’s hands, “’Round Midnight” is quieter but it still swings with a medium tempo feel without ever losing its ballad quality. Indeed, in the last chorus Blakey double-times the tempo for two bars, as if to remind us that the song really swings.
Meanwhile, there were no millionaire ladies on the horizon, so Monk had to keep working and promote his records. In February he was invited to participate in radio station WNYC’s Ninth Annual “American Music Program,” an eleven day festival celebrating all phases and genres of American music, from military marching bands to the works of American composers such as Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. On February 16, WNYC broadcasted fourteen minutes of music by Monk and his quartet—Sulieman, Blakey, and bassist Curley Russell. Surprisingly, Thelonious chose not to play any of his own compositions. Instead, they performed a swinging version of “Just You, Just Me,” in which only Monk states the melody while Sulieman improvises freely. Monk’s piano arrangement hints at things to come: the bass line he plays beneath the melody shows up later in his 1955 Riverside recording of the same tune. They also take a stab at “All the Things You Are,” which is played so loosely it sounds like Monk called it at a jam session. No one actually plays the melody, though Monk has a way of allowing one to hear it throughout. Now that they were not limited by the three-minute format required for 78s, Monk stretches out and builds his improvisations thematically, drawing on phrases from Sulieman’s solo. The band finally closes out the set with a song from one of the records—Quebec’s “Suburban Eyes.”
A modern quartet made up of swing-era veterans and modernists, the choice of personnel paid off. The band cut six sides in nine takes, and virtually everything Blue Note released from these sessions verged on spectacular. Monk offers up two new compositions. “Evidence,” based on the changes from “Just You, Just Me,” was still being composed when Monk first recorded. We hear a stripped down version of what the song will become; Jackson states he first eight bars of the melody and then plays obligato behind Monk continuation of the theme. Indeed, Monk’s comping underneath Jackson is so strong that the chords become the melody—not unlike what Monk played behind Gillespie big band version of “Groovin’ High” two years earlier. “Misterioso,” another new tune, was Monk’s only twelve-bar blues to date. Unlike most blues riffs, the melody is distinctive in that it’s built on even eighth notes of ascending and descending parallel sixths. The band also updated a couple of older Monk compositions—the Minton’s theme song “Epistrophy” and “I Mean You.” Both songs are radical departures from earlier recordings by Cootie Williams and Coleman Hawkins, respectively. They are more angular and dissonant, and Monk’s accents on “I Mean You” are more off-center without losing a sense of swing. He brilliantly echoes Jackson’s interpretation of the opening theme and plays countermelodies so jarring and unusual that they render the essential melody dull by comparison.
The Complete Story of “Eronel”
The most noteworthy song on the date is a boppish line titled “Eronel.” Its importance lay not in its musical qualities, nor is it considered one of Monk’s better-known pieces. Indeed, “Eronel” is not even Monk’s song despite the initial credit he received as co-composer. It is significant for the stories behind it—stories of love and theft. “Eronel” is Lenore spelled backwards, and the Lenore in question was a young, attractive Jewish girl from Kansas City named Lenore Gordon. Pianist Argonne Thornton, who had converted to Islam and went by Sadik Hakim, had named it for her. Although controversy over authorship still rages among fans and musicians alike, fellow Muslim Idrees Sulieman said he wrote the A section and Hakim wrote the bridge, but it is the love story between an African-American Ahmadiyya convert and a white, Midwestern middle-class Jew that animates the song. Lenore always loved jazz. Her High School sweetheart was a musician who had studied with the legendary pianist/bandleader Jay McShann, and the two of them had met Charlie Parker. In the summer of 1944, her mother took her to New York for a visit with the hopes of persuading Lenore to consider a career in acting. During their stay she ran into McShann on 52nd Street, who then introduces the sixteen-year-old beauty to many of the great musicians on the Street—Bud Powell, Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Gene Ramey, Ray Brown, Coleman Hawkins, even Thelonious. And she met Sadik, a thin, slight, handsome man twenty-five years of age who shared with Lenore Midwestern roots (he hailed from Duluth, Minnesota) and an appreciation for bebop. He immediately assumed the role of Lenore’s protector in the predatory world of jazz musicians. But in the racially divided world 1944, the color difference put them both in danger: “Sadik and I would go walking,” Lenore remembered. “At times I would meet him and we would walk around Central Park. These were the days when blacks and whites did not intermingle socially and I could have cared less but we were picked up by the police once. It was in the afternoon, it was probably two o’clock. A car zipped up and two plainclothes men got out and I wasn’t scared but Sadik was older so he did whatever shuffling he did and they put him in the car and they questioned me. I was so young and so innocent, so obviously I was what I said I was. So they went home with me to my apartment where I lived with my mother. I guess they looked it over and they examined my purse. Later Sadik told me he had a couple of joints. They took him down the station with them.”
Their friendship remained on the precipice of romance, but Sadik was always the gentleman. His affections were limited to words and music: every time she walked into a club where he was playing, he broke into Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” in her honor. She returned to Kansas City at the end of the summer, no closer to becoming an actress than when she first arrived. Then, a year later, in a rebellious act intended to get her out of her mother’s house and out of Kansas City, she married a man she did not love and ran off to Maryland. The man was named Joe Baroni and he was a part of a prominent Mafia family in Kansas City. She realized it was a mistake even before she left, but she was confused, a bit scared, and only seventeen years old. A couple of months into the marriage, Lenore’s father convinced her to get a divorce. Soon after she left Baroni, she headed back up to New York City where she reunited with Sadik Hakim. Now that she was eighteen, legal, and more mature, Sadik was ready to begin a relationship with Lenore. But he wanted more than romance. “He said, ‘You move here and marry me,’” Lenore recalled. “I said, ‘I already made the worst decision of my life. Why would I want to marry a musician? They are the most unreliable people in the world. . . . You’re a great person but I don’t think I’m going to make another mistake.”
It would be nearly thirty years before they saw each other again. Still, Sadik held a torch for the young woman. Five years after she turned own his proposal, he paid tribute to her by naming this musical collaboration “Eronel.” (Contrary to jazzlore, however, he did not spell it backward because she was involved with a mobster. She had long divorced Baroni and had no ties to the Mafia.) Upon completing the tune, they tried to interest Miles Davis in recording it. He did add it to his repertoire briefly, though he disliked the bridge and simply improvised over the B-section. We know this because a broadcast of the song, which had been mistitled “Overturia,” was caught on tape on June 30, 1950 live from Birdland.
Miles lost interest in the song, in part because neither Sulieman nor Hakim were willing to drop the bridge. So Sulieman took it to Monk, who kept changing one note—the last note of the second bar. “I said, ‘That’s the wrong note but play it again. Leave that note in. We’ll do the writers’ credits three ways.’” Monk did a little more than contribute one note. The chord voicings are his, as are little embellishments in both the A –section and the bridge, but the melody clearly belongs to Sulieman and Hakim. Unfortunately, when the record was released and the song copyrighted, only Monk’s name appeared. Both Sulieman and Hakim were hurt, and Sulieman spent a better part of his life giving Thelonious a hard time about the error. Years later, while they were all in Copenhagen, he appealed to Monk: “Why don’t you make a statement and tell them how it really happened?” But Thelonious would just smile and say, “They forgot it, ha ha.”[x] It was only after Monk died that Thelonious Monk, Jr., restored their names as co-composers of “Eronel.”
He even stamps the one non-Monk composition, Johnny Griffin’s minor blues “Purple Shades,” with his own imprint. His comping behind the opening theme is more interesting than the melody itself. And despite two long days worth of work for so little money, Monk never loses his sense of humor: the first few bars of Monk’s solo on “Purple Shades” is a kind of homage to Horace Silver, the regular pianist for the Jazz Messengers and his co-performer a month earlier on Sonny Rollins’s infamous “Misterioso” recording.
The jewels of the session were the two ballads. Thelonious and Hawkins create an absolutely gorgeous collaboration on “Ruby, My Dear.” Both artists bring a measure of patience and maturity that might have been unthinkable back when Monk first joined Hawk in 1944. In their hands, “Ruby” became a loving expression of mutual admiration and a brilliant example of what it means to make music.
The full story of the Origins of the Five Spot
For one thing, it wasn’t always called the Five Spot. When Salvatore Termini, an enterprising Sicilian born in 1884, who came to America at age twenty-two, purchased the bar in 1937, patrons knew it as the Bowery Café. Situated between East 4th and 5th, where Bowery ends and splits off into Third Avenue and Cooper Square, the Bowery Café was one of several small bars hidden in the shadows of the elevated train line along Third Avenue, known to natives as the Third Avenue El. Old-timers remembered it as the heart of skid row before it earned the sexier moniker of “East Village.” Salvatore had no illusions about the clientele, a smattering of street drunks and thirsty vagabonds mixed in with respectable working-class locals and your occasional outlaw. The notorious gangster Harry Rich (aka Arthur Clayton) lived in an apartment at 5 Cooper Square. In 1934, he earned the distinction of becoming the first organized crime figure arrested under New Jersey’s new “public enemy” law. In 1930, Salvatore was living a few blocks away in the Lower East side, just off of Bowery, with his wife Angelina and five of their six children. He also knew how to run a business; prior to entering the trade in spirits he built and sold furniture had his own small linoleum enterprise.
This watering hole was no gold mine, but it enabled Salvatore to put food on the table, move from a tenement apartment on the Lower East side to owning a modest house in Brooklyn, and launch a family-run printing business. Salvatore and his wife Angelina had six kids—two daughters, Katherine and Antoinette, and four sons, John, Frank, Ignatze (“Iggy” for short), and Joseph. The two older boys, John and Frank, helped their father with the books. Frank went on to earn a law degree and for a while took on the lion’s share of the financial and administrative responsibilities for the Bowery Café. When Iggy was old enough, he worked briefly for the family printing business as a linotype and monotype operator until he enlisted in the U. S. Army Air Force in May of 1942 at the age of twenty-three. Ten months later, his nineteen-year-old brother Joe followed suit.
Iggy was assigned to a B-26 bomber unit in the Pacific theater, mainly China, India and Burma, while Joe’s B-17 bomber unit was stationed in Africa. Both brothers survived the war and returned home in 1946 to help their father run the family businesses. In 1951, Joe and Iggy took over the place, which was now called No. 5 Bar. It continued to thrive as a neighborhood joint, serving the regular drunks who could pay their tab and providing a haven from the winter cold for the unfortunate men who called the streets home. Joe worked as the bartender, but his other job was to hold the customers’ “flop money”—the cash needed to rent a room for the night. “It was a busy place,” Iggy Termini remembered. “We were making a lot of money and it was a busy place. But all people were doing was drinking. . . . I was buying one hundred cases of wine, in gallon bottles, a month, and about thirty barrels of beer a week.” Neither Joe nor Iggy found the work very rewarding or interesting, but it was a living.
Then, in late 1955, the neighborhood changed. The city decided the Third Avenue El, the elevated train that ran along the East side of Manhattan, had seen its last days and embarked on a massive demolition and redevelopment project. While local businesses were expected to share the cost of installing streetlights, the removal of the El brought fresh air, quiet, sunlight, a commitment to “clean up” the Bowery, and a new wave of artists in search of loft spaces and cheaper rents. The Termini brothers responded accordingly, transforming the drab bowery bar into a haven for the new clientele, adorning the walls with posters from various art exhibitions. The bar also attracted some neighborhood musicians, including a fine pianist and merchant marine named Don Shoemaker. When Shoemaker wasn’t at sea, he organized jam sessions in his upstairs studio at 1 Cooper Square, next door to the bar. “They’d be coming down and buying a pitcher a beer or whatever,” Joe Termini recalled. “They were running up and down and all that, so Don Shoemaker says to me, ‘Why don’t you get a piano and we’ll come play here.’” The Terminis liked the idea, so they purchased an old upright and applied for a cabaret license. They received the license August 30, 1956, and a week later opened for business as the Five Spot, the newest jazz club in the Village. For the next three months, Shoemaker co-led a small group with bass trumpet player William Dale Wales. They essentially moved the jam sessions downstairs and invited their friends to play. Within weeks of the club’s reincarnation, the Five Spot earned a reputation as the local place for cheap beer and good music. Initially, Joe Termini wasn’t a big jazz fan; all he listened to at the time was “a little Dixie.” But once the music began to attract customers, no one complained.
Coltrane and Monk at Carnegie Hall. . . .
The group’s rapport is astonishing, and Thelonious’s playing is full of surprises. “Monk’s Mood,” for example, is a startlingly beautiful dialogue, with Monk playing these sensuous arpeggios and runs underneath Coltrane’s interpretation of the theme. And they are not the ‘whole tone’ runs we’ve come to expect from Monk. On “Crepuscule with Nellie,” Thelonious breaks with protocol of no improvisation by suddenly dropping a quote from his own “52nd Street Theme”! Perhaps being five blocks away from “the Street” made him a bit nostalgic? The arrangement of “Blue Monk” is another nice surprise, with Coltrane playing the melody a minor third below (except for the first note, which begins on Bb, a major third below). This changes the sonority significantly, setting up a different kind of exploration of the blues. The dynamism Shadow Wilson creates for the band is most evident on “Nutty,” “Epistrophy,” and “Bye-ya”–in which he demonstrates his ability to evoke a Caribbean rhythmic feel. Shadow swings incredibly hard on “Epistrophy” and Monk is loving it; at one point he plays a little five note lick on the snare drum and Monk mimics it on the piano. The only standard the band explores, not surprisingly, is “Sweet and Lovely,” and their rendition is like an abstract expressionist painting—Monk paint swirls of color around descending chord progressions.