It's Always Monk's Time

In 1976, the Pulitzer Prize’s Special Awards and Citations division recognized Scott Joplin, 59 years after his death. In 1998, it honored George Gershwin, 61 years after his death. In 1999, it bowed to Duke Ellington (whom the board had notoriously snubbed in 1965), 25 years after his death. This past April, it happened upon Thelonious Monk, a mere 22 years after his death. Progress!

If this trend holds, a Pulitzer may go next year to Miles Davis, only 16 years after his death, or to John Lewis, six years after his death—and daringly close to the land of the living. The downside of this plucky stride into the mid-20th century is that it closes the door on earlier decedents—no chance to genuflect to Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, let alone Louis Armstrong. What a wonderful world: The most dominant musical force of the last hundred years has a New Orleans airport named after him but no posthumous trinket from the mandarin guardians of our arts and leisure.

One imagines the Pulitzer wizards computing at what distant shore to honor George Russell, Cecil Taylor, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman. Had one of them (among others) been selected, the crepe hangers at Columbia University, which administers the Pulitzer, would have finally delivered on their much-publicized resolution to consider jazz a living American music worthy of notice. They might even have skipped the Special Citation routine and awarded jazz a competitive prize. By the old rules, which limited contenders to works that debuted in concert, Taylor would have been an elegant choice this year for either the orchestral piece he premiered at Iridium or the trio piece he introduced at the Blue Note. The new rules permit “a first performance or recording,” supposedly broadening the field. I’m sure the jurors scrupulously examined every disc: Let no Aum Fidelity go unturned.

In truth, the Pulitzer is a world-class washout in all the arts. The only reason everyone has heard of it is because the New York Times, Washington Post and other newspapers that dominate its journalism prizes shamelessly promote it every year. Draw up a list of the 100 best American novels since 1917, and you can bet that no more than eight to 12 were cited for a Pulitzer, resulting in a batting average of .100. They do less well in drama, criticism and music.

The problem the Pulitzer has with jazz is that, despite the putative accent on American music, the jurors insist that it conform to the performance practices of European music. Lost without scores, they distrust improvisation. In shying from the fact that great jazz musicians compose on the run, they render the most crucial dimension of their music invisible. Does Armstrong’s “West End Blues” belong, in fact, to Armstrong, or to King Oliver, whose indifferent theme serves as its source material? Would Armstrong’s recording of it have proved more influential or durable had it been notated in pencil before taking flight in real time?

To consider achievements in jazz, the Pulitzer would have to recognize jazz as a distinctive way of playing music. Whether it singles out a new composition or an artist’s work (which makes more sense), the jury would have to accept standards that are pertinent to jazz. This pilfering of the dead simply calls attention to the committee’s confusion: By what logic did they vote a Special Citation to Monk rather than to Coleman? It was a cowardly thing to do. Yet at the same time, of course, it represents a hard-won victory.

Monk deserves every musical prize. His family can take pride in this recognition, however late, of an incomparable genius who during his peak years was prohibited from working in New York by cabaret laws and whose instrumental and compositional powers were frequently derided by philistines in the jazz press. A Pulitzer in time might have alleviated his discontent. Coming this late, the prize reeks of the self-congratulations that generated ineffective apologies to Native Americans, African-Americans, interred Japanese and other victims of imperialism, repression and cultural incomprehension. They cost nothing to nobody.

That said, why Monk? For the 70 compositions that bear his name?

They justify recognizing him as one of the greatest of modern composers. His portfolio is distinct in its melodic, rhythmic and harmonic originality, in its humor and emotional candor and independence—and is as widely performed as any body of music conceived at the piano since Liszt. One of this year’s most enthralling recordings is Alexander Von Schlippenbach’s Monk’s Casino: The Complete Works of Thelonious Monk (Intakt), a three-disc quintet rendering of 70 pieces, many in medley form, some for a theme chorus, others as spurs to improvisation. Credit Schlippenbach for being the first, and hope he won’t be the last—the complete Monk ought to stimulate the ambitions of musicians as often as the complete Beethoven sonatas.

Yet Monk’s compositional authority is by no means confined to the works he copyrighted. Decades ago the pianist Orin Grossman began programming Monk piano pieces in recitals of classical music, including transcriptions of Monk’s recordings of “April in Paris” and “I Should Care,” treated as original piano works. Why not? Monk’s “April in Paris” has the same unmistakably Monkian integrity as, say, “Coming on the Hudson.”

Like all great jazz artists, he muddies the line between composition and improvisation. One example dear to me is his 1964 recording of the exceedingly obscure song “I Love You—I Love You—I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams,” a hit for Rudy Vallee in 1928, briefly revived in 1944 in the score of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. (Columbia has never been able to get the title right: It was originally released on the album MONK. as “(Just One Way to Say) I Love You”). Monk plays five choruses of the 36-bar AABA1 theme, employing rubato, stride and thematic improvisation, yet never abandoning the theme. The details are everything—the stoutly chimed dissonances, rhythmic displacements, ingenious turnbacks, and thematic improvisation. From solemn opening chords to a surprising finish that combines boogie woogie, a splashing arpeggio and a dramatic flowering of harmony, his precision is unerring and thoroughly compositional. That’s what jazz musicians do.

Originally published in July/August 2006

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