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Back in Time: Monk’s Tribute to Monk

This article by Peter J. Mladineo was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

March 18, 1998. All rights reserved.

Maybe this is a little sacrilegious to suggest, but

if Mozart or Beethoven were alive today they would probably wield

electric guitars or four-track tape recorders as opposed to batons

or quill pens. The same goes with jazz greats. If Dizzie Gillespie

or John Coltrane were born in the latter part of the 20th century,

who’s to say they would not have chosen R&B over jazz?

Picture the late Thelonius Sphere Monk, the legendary composer who

penned such jazz standards as "Round Midnight," as a funkster?

Don’t laugh. The idea comes from his son, T.S. Monk Jr. "My father

used to say `You gotta go with your time,’" he says, in a telephone

interview from his West Orange home. "My father didn’t grow up

with funk, if he had he might have gone with it."

But sometimes the wheel spins in reverse. T.S. Monk has already managed

to forge a career as a drummer in the R&B genre — outside of his

father’s venerated shadow. But now, at age 47, he has chosen to wade

back in time to play his father’s "straight jazz." He is now

touring the country with his jazz group, the T.S. Monk Sextet, and

has just released "Monk on Monk," a tribute album released

on N2K’s Encoded Music label, which features nine Monk compositions.

The T.S. Monk Sextet and several others will play Monk’s 80th anniversary

birthday tribute at the College of New Jersey on Thursday, March 26,

8 p.m. The cast will include musicians who played with Thelonius Sr.

back then, including Eddie Burt and Howard Johnson.

The Monk tribute album has a dizzying array of soloists, including

Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter, Grover Washington, Jr.,

Roy Hargrove, Jimmy Heath, and Christian McBride. "You can almost

hear the limousines pulling away," says Monk. "Everybody came

to play."

With or without star power, "Monk on Monk" testifies to Monk

Sr.’s importance to the jazz idiom. And despite the hum of limousines

waiting on the street for individual band members, the whole in this

recording is greater than the sum of its parts. "Everybody came

with the same attitude," says Monk. "Everybody viewed this

as an unfettered opportunity to pay tribute to someone who means an

awful lot to everyone who played on this record.

"It has more to do with Thelonius than any of us. I attribute

the whole thing to a profound respect we all have for him. When you

say Thelonius, everybody straightens up," he continues. "He

represents everything that it means to be a jazz musician. He has

all the pieces put together without any of the baggage to go with


Ultimately, the CD pays tribute to a man who loved to pay tribute

to his family through his songs. Several of the tunes on the CD,

"Crepuscle for Nellie" and "Jackie-ing," for instance, are

about family members. Monk Jr. even dusted off one of his father’s

unrecorded compositions, "Two Timers."

But the secrets to jazz are in the nuance within the

solos and the colors these solos evoke. In this case picture blue

streaked with orange pastels — effervescing, bobbing, dabbling,

swiveling, reconnoitering, finding new ground. Within the context

of familial devotion, the musical message revives itself again and

again, reshaping each memory in manifold variation. The brush of the

final crashing cymbal lingers, soothing the frayed remnants of the

century of jazz that Monk represents.

For his son, a career in jazz is a recapitulation of his youth. From

age four or five, the young Monk would regularly experience visiting

jazz dignitaries like Horace Silver, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and

Art Blakey hanging out at the homestead. "I was around my father’s

peer group because my father liked to have his son with him,"

he says. "I didn’t even know these guys’ last names until I was

seven or eight. They all seemed to be these individual suns with their

own individual universes around them, but they were all in the same

galaxy. Sonny Rollins had his own thing; it came through the door

with him."

Monk started playing drums at age 13, secretly. When he did manage

to tell his father about it two years later, Monk Sr. sent him to

study privately with Max Roach, the drum guru. The young Monk never

went to college and did most of his learning in his practice room.

But as he would attest, he attended a far better institute than any

that could be offered by an accredited school. "I was fortunate

enough to be in the Dean’s office of the University of the Streets

of Jazz," he proclaims. "There is no music school in the planet,

no matter what its idiom, that could give you what I got from jazz."

Was his father a micromanager or a whipcracker? Hardly. "Any jazz

musician worth his salt knows inherently from the very earliest days

that you have to practice," says Monk. "We invented the word

`woodshed,’ so we know you have to practice all day and night if you’re

interested in being a jazz musician. No one has to tell you.

"By the second year I was practicing six, seven hours a day. You

crave to do the stuff, you run to the clubs on your own, you buy every

record you can buy."

Meanwhile, his father was quietly tracking his son’s progress. "He

was aware of what I was doing. Obviously he listened to what was going

on in the next room." By 1970, Monk Jr. was the full-time drummer

in the Thelonius Monk Trio. Monk Jr. played with Monk Sr. until 1975,

the year Thelonius stopped performing.

Monk Jr. then went into R&B, forming the T.S. Monk band with his sister

Barbara and girlfriend Yvonne Fletcher. The band cut three titles

on the Mirage label, a division of Atlantic, and achieved a degree

of success. But then a string of tragedies hit. His father died in

1982; Yvonne Fletcher died in 1983; and his sister Barbara passed

away in 1984. At this point, Monk had put down the drumsticks and

devoted himself entirely to working with the Thelonius Monk Institute

of Jazz.

This 11-year-old jazz education program is headquartered in Washington

D.C., and offers several programs, including a highly selective two-year

degree program based in Boston at the New England Conservatory —

under the direction of Ron Carter. With only seven slots, there are

a "tremendous amount of competitive auditions."

Working with the institute has also given him a multitude of connections

in the jazz industry. "As chairman of the Monk Institute I seem

to know everybody," he says.

But building a career as a jazz musician would take a little more

than networking. In 1991, Monk started jamming with Don Sickler, the

trumpet player who was a colleague of his at the institute. From that

point it would take Monk four more years of work to establish credibility

in the jazz world.

The T.S. Monk Sextet also has Willie Williams and Bobby Porcelli on

sax, and Ronnie Matthews on piano, and subsequently released three

albums on Blue Note. Monk is taking a tentet with him on the tour

and the album, but as Monk explains, the sextet is the core of the

band. "It’s very rare when you find guys loyal enough to the leader

and loyal enough to the guys to stay in the band for four years,"

he says. "You have an industry that de-emphasizes the concept

of bands and emphasizes the importance of soloists, which I think

is the stupidest thing in the world. When you ain’t got a home, you

ain’t going to think clearly, you dig? Most jazz musicians spend their

time waiting by the phone. It’s very difficult to create an identity

on the marketplace."

He likens the work of the sextet to a modern edition of Art Blakey

and the Jazz Messengers. "I know the image that I’ve created and

I wouldn’t change it for anything it in the world. I’m still trying

to put a face on the music."

But at this point, despite his acknowledgement that a musician should

respect the musical genres du jour, playing the classics seems

to have become his sacred duty. "We should be taking care of the

music like it’s a Holy Grail," he says. "Otherwise, do your

own thing."

— Peter J. Mladineo

Monk on Monk, College of New Jersey, Kendall Hall

Main Stage, 609-771-2775. $12. Thursday, March 26, 8 p.m.

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