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T.S. Monk: Family Matters

T.S. Monk (photo by Jimmy Katz)
T.S. Monk
T.S. Monk

“For too long, jazz has been like a welfare state,” says T.S. Monk. “There’s been a real defeatist attitude about it. People at the major labels don’t even try anymore. They accept the fact that jazz represents only 3% of the marketplace so they’re just content to get their little share and that’s that. But I say, that shows there’s room for growth.”

He’s on a roll now up in the corporate headquarters of his new record label, N2K Encoded Music. He could be a motivational speaker at a convention of Amway salesmen; a clean-headed Don King preaching with the driving intensity and charisma of a tv evangelist. “We can sell jazz just like bubblegum if we only apply a hip marketing strategy to the problem at hand,” he continues. “My approach is about marketing. My approach is about be valid, be solid but be loud! Be visible, be entertaining, be charming…be all those things and do things in a fashion that make people take notice.”

And he definitely has practiced what he preaches. Whether it was in the early ’80s as an R&B producer-player-entrepreneur or in the ’90s as a born again jazzbo, T.S. Monk knows how to talk the talk and walk the walk. And the theme of today’s sermon is the joy of packaging:

“The mistake that jazz people made in the ’70s was that they changed the content to try and reach a larger audience. But you don’t mess with the content of jazz. That’s bound to bring on failure. I know from my experience with pop and R&B that packaging is so very important. That’s all that pop music is today, all packaging and no substance. You’ve got the same music…sometimes by the same artist…being marketed over and over again with a new package each time out. They may change the name-one day it’s rap, the next day it’s house, the next day it’s acid house, then it’s hip-hop or trip-hop or whatever. It’s all the same thing rehashed in a shiny new package. And we can market jazz that way. The only difference is, the content is so much more substantial. We have a great product. We just have to be creative in marketing it to the masses.”

Clearly, the market savvy Monk has landed in a great place. It’s a classic example of a great fit between artist and record company. After three albums with Blue Note, he’s connected with a label that is on the cutting edge of technology with their enhanced cds and internet hookup and is also eager to market Monk On Monk as if T.S. were the Garth Brooks of jazz.

“This album is an event,” he says with no small amount of pride of the all-star homage to his father, the late great Thelonious Monk. “It’s like the Super Bowl to me. It’s a watershed event in my career. This is something that everyone had mentioned to me when I got back into jazz in 1992. When I first said to people that I was going to start a band they told me, ‘Oh yeah? Well, you need to do an all-star thing and it needs to be all Thelonious Monk music.’ And my response was, ‘You know what? Not! That would be exactly what John Doe Public would expect me to do.’ First of all, that runs absolutely against the grain of everything I was taught growing up with Thelonious for a father. And secondly, career-wise, it’d just be the wrong thing to do. The hype of rock ‘n roll or popular music-where everyone says you’re the greatest singer when you’re really singing every song out of tune and still selling millions of records-doesn’t fly in the jazz world. So one has to really establish credibility before tackling a project like an album of all Thelonious Monk music. And I think with the three CDs I did for Blue Note (1991’s Take One, 1993’s Changing Of The Guard and 1995’s The Charm) and by touring the world with my sextet for that past four years. Combined with…I must say, I’ve been blessed with a lot of critical acclaim…it’s worked out for me so that I felt at this juncture it was a good time to do something for Thelonious, to really establish that link in a strong way so that people know that I’m fully aware of exactly who my father is.”

Applying a highly personalized approach to Monk’s oeuvre, T.S. and principal arranger Don Sickler have come up with fresh takes on “Little Rootie Tootie,” “Crepuscule With Nellie,” “Ugly Beauty” and “Boo Boo’s Birthday,” “Bright Mississippi” and “Jackie-ing.” “Ruby My Dear” and “In Walked Bud” are rendered here as vocal numbers while they also unveil one unknown Monk composition, “Two Timer,” that actually has a somewhat tainted history. As Thelonious III explains in his indefatigable fashion:

“That’s a tune that was recorded by Jackie McLean. It was called ‘Five Will Get You Ten’ and Sonny Clark is credited as the composer. But it’s really ‘Two Timer.’ I discovered the manuscript in 1984 among a dozen different tunes that Thelonious had left behind. We didn’t realize it had been previously recorded until (drummer-jazz historian-DJ) Kenny Washington identified the tune. We found out that it had been recorded on this relatively obscure Jackie McLean record (A Fickle Sonance) back in 1962, which was right at the time Sonny Clark was living with Thelonious, hanging around the house all day and night.

“But Thelonious had a thing where he didn’t care what anybody took anyway. He wasn’t worried about you stealing his music. And that’s why there are a number of tunes around with other people’s names on it…much bigger names than Sonny Clark…that are Thelonious’ too. Some writers know it, some of the musicians know it, I know it. But it’s not an issue. You have to let bygones be bygones at a certain point. But this particular tune was very, very important because it was a substantial piece of music that had every characteristic of Thelonious’ music on it. And it was recorded at the time by an artist who was a known scoundrel, who was a drug addict looking for money and was practically living with Thelonious at the time. I just said, ‘Sometimes you just have to draw the line somewhere. And I think I’m going to draw the line here.’ Because Thelonious only wrote 82 or 83 tunes of which the world knows about 73. And I felt that because of the enormous quality of Thelonious’ music-since he did not write with the quantity of a Duke Ellington or Benny Carter or Kenny Dorham-it was important that every piece of music that was clearly his piece of music be identified as his piece of music. And ‘Two Timer’ is his piece of music. It’s Thelonious Monk’s song as sure as I’m his son. I’ve got the manuscripts, I know the history and I felt that this tune needed to be properly reintroduced to the world.”

T.S. is also on a mission to spread his beloved father’s music to a wider audience. “One of the things that I had learned about Thelonious not only from being his son but also being the chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute and being back in the music myself is that I couldn’t find three people who didn’t love Thelonious,” he says. “Particularly musicians of a certain caliber. He’s just part of their vocabulary. So I said, ‘Gollee, if I could put together a situation where we could do exactly what we wanted to, where it was unfettered by a record company, unfettered by financial constraints…in other words, I could get the studio time, not have to watch the clock and get some money to give people what they should rightfully get to be involved in a project like this…If I can take care of those three sort of imperatives, then all the artistic juices from everybody that I pick up the phone and call would rise to the top. The opportunity to play Thelonious’ music in a very pure fashion and at the same time be creative and at the same time be unfettered and at the same time have things customed tailored….it would be an offer that very few musicians of a certain caliber could turn down. And they couldn’t. And I established with everybody we called that we’re doing this for Monk. This is not for me. Thelonious Jr. is able to put together the circumstance so that we can all do this for Monk. I’m trying to create an environment so that we can all do something in Thelonious’ name that we can all step back and be as proud of as something that Thelonious might honestly smile at from the next dimension.”

And many major musicians heeded the call. Ron Carter, Christian McBride and Dave Holland (who worked with T.S. in his father’s group back in the early ’70s) trade the bass chair with T.S. regular Gary Wang. Wayne Shorter helps create an evocative mood with his soaring soprano sax work on a hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Crepescule With Nellie.” On a rousing “Little Rootie Tootie” (Dad’s nickname for a toddler T.S.), Grover Washington, Jr. blows with the blustery abandon of tenor titan Johnny Griffin alongside pianist Danilo Perez. Herbie Hancock enlivens “Two Timer” with his sparkling piano work while Roy Hargrove plays a brilliant, soulful flugelhorn solo on “Dear Ruby,” a vocal feature for Kevin Mahogony. Jimmy Heath and Arturo Sandoval guest on “Bright Mississippi,” a foreboding tune led by McBride’s muscular bass pulse, and Howard Johnson unleashes a ferocious baritone sax solo alongside guests Geri Allen and Wallace Roney on “Ugly Beauty.” Bobby Watson and Wallace share solo duties on “Jackie-ing” and vocalists Dianne Reeves and Nnenna Freelon exchanged some spirited scatting on “Suddenly,” Jon Hendrick’s vocal version of Monk’s “In Walked Bud,” which also features a guest solo spot from trumpet great Clark Terry.

Says T.S. of this all-star session which was recorded and mixed at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, “Everybody polished their artistic boots, so to speak, and came in the door with one goal, and that was to sound as good as they possible could on that day on some of the most difficult music ever written on the planet earth. The timing was right, the vibe was absolutely right and I think the cd really reflects that. I’m in awe of the cd myself. And I think it’s a wonderful event for the jazz recording industry because I was able to involve 19 major artists. That’s an enormous number to have on a single project and still have everybody sound great. I took all the production skills that I’ve had for 15 years of playing rhythm ‘n’ blues and jazz, producing my own records to make sure that everybody on this record sounds great. There are no sad solos, there are no thin mixes. I tried to treat everybody like the superstar they were. But Don and I also knew that the music itself was the superstar. Really, the only one on the record that ain’t a superstar, as far as I’m concerned, is myself. And I’ve had the great fortune to be the chef.”

For the drummer-bandleader Monk On Monk was practically an issue of manifest destiny. “I am not a superstitious guy, I am not a guy that goes to church or anything…but there have been a number of events in my life, starting in 1984 with the death of my sister when I was an r&b artist that have pointed me in the direction of where I am today. From life forcing me into the chairmanship for the Monk Institute and then me taking that on, and that forcing me into being a bandleader because I wanted to play but I had to do something because I was who I was; ending up on Blue Note records and making exactly the records that I wanted and being able to keep my band together…all these things cannot be just my business prowess or ‘just luck.’ Because there seems to be some kind of concerted effort to all of these events in my life.

“And so I end up with this record and I say, ‘Gollee! This record fits everything that I have done over the last 12 years.’ But I don’t quite understand how I’ve done it because none of it was part of the plan. So this must be what I’m supposed to be doing and I will suspect that from the day I was born one of the things that I was ‘supposed to do’ in life was to make this record. Because this record is important. It’s important to jazz and it’s important to Thelonious. It’s much more important to those entities than it is to me as an individual. Because what it does is it establishes an unquestionable respect for Thelonious’ music in real time today, as opposed to in a historical or the respectful fashion that many of our jazz icons are dealt with. But they’re not dealt with in real time today with newer and fresher arrangements…artists of today playing their style…whatever it is today…and I think that that was very, very important. Because what it does is it reinforces, for me, the eternal nature of the music of guys like Thelonious Monk, Kenny Dorham, Benny Carter, Duke Ellington. This is real, real serious music….probably the most serious music that’s ever been created so far…not to say that there won’t be something else…there will always be something else. But right now, in terms of its aggregate effect and influence on all the other musical cultures, because it is of all the other musical cultures…it’s very, very important, artistically, for us to continues to develop…for the pop world to continue to develop. Because this music is the cauldron from where the ideas are really scooped up and distilled down and go into the pop world and become the ear candy for the masses. So it’s an important element. And I think that when an artist like Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington is respected and honored in this way, it begins to transcend the idiom itself.”

Considering the corporate muscle of N2K, their ambitious marketing campaign, the attraction of the all-star cast and the reverence that jazz fans have for Thelonious Monk, T.S. is predicting huge sales for Monk on Monk. “The difference between the people who listen to Wallace Roney and the people who listen to Clark Terry is generational,” he explains. “The difference between the people who listen to Ron Carter and the people who may listen to a Christian McBride can be very, very different. But they will all buy this record, I believe. And I think that’s important because it establishes the linkage. The fact that all these artists can exist on one record and all shine establishes the validity of the context.”

Contrary to early Monk critics who found his off-kilter rhythms and angular phrasing too oblique and ‘out’ for mass consumption, T.S. believes that his father’s music is inherently accessible. “I have always said that more people can hum Thelonious Monk melodies than can hum anybody else’s in jazz other than Duke Ellington’s. Melodies like ‘Straight No Chaser,’ ‘Round Midnight’ and ‘Well You Needn’t’ are so accessible. Thelonious has a whole list of tunes that you can teach to kindergarten kids and they understand it. You can’t do that with ‘Ornithology’ or ‘Moose The Mooch.’ You can’t do that with a lot of the great jazz compositions. As we move into the 21st century we find that of all the jazz music written-from the turn of the century right up until today-whose tunes sort of stand out? Forget whether he’s the most famous or not. Whose tunes does everybody know? Thelonious Monk, that’s who!”

Indeed, Monk’s memorable melodies have filtered down into popular consciousness to the point where bits and pieces of familiar themes emerge subliminally in advertising spots on radio and TV. Recently, while viewing the Nickelodeon channel with my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, I recognized the distinct theme from “Rhythm-a-ning” on “Blue’s Clues,” a pre-schooler’s program about a boy and his animated blue dog. “This is why I say this music is very important to the fabric of American music,” says T.S. “It’s important to the underpinning of the creative process of American music because it filters into all the other musics.”

There are dozens of other examples of Monk’s pervasive influence. He remains perhaps the most eminently quotable composer of all time among jazz soloists. How many times have you heard a sax player, trumpeter or guitarist-even in the context of rock funk or blues bands-drop in a sly reference to Monk as a means of gaining some hip credibility? And generally, it works.

Regarding Don Sickler’s input on the Monk on Monk project, T.S. had nothing but praise for this longtime colleague, placing him in the ranks of Monk enthusiast and arranger Hall Overton, who did such a fine job of adapting Thelonious’ compositions for big band on 1959’s Town Hall Concert (Riverside) and 1963’s In Concert (Columbia), recorded live at Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center. “I think that Hall Overton really understood Thelonious and that’s why they worked so well together,” he says. “And though they didn’t get the opportunity to work together I know that Don Sickler, who studied Hall heavily, has a gift for interpreting Thelonious’ music, particularly in the big band setting. Plus, he and I have spent almost 15 years together discussing this music and going over this music. And I think that maybe these arrangements that we came up with are a little more accessible because I had what Thelonious didn’t have. Which is, I had the time to really put the music together, the time to really rehearse it, the time to record it…to do more than one take. I took almost three weeks mixing this stuff. And those things tend to clarify a production. When I listen to Town Hall Concert (1959 on Riverside), which is a classic record, but I have to think, ‘Gollee, man, if only this thing would’ve been mixed properly.’ Since it was a live recording it probably went direct to two tracks. Had it been mixed better initially it would’ve gotten over better.”

T.S. remains less than enthusiastic with the job that Oliver Nelson did on Monk’s Blues, a 1968 big band project his father recorded in Hollywood. “Anyone listening to it can see that it didn’t have very much to do with Thelonious,” he insists. “Oliver Nelson was a wonderful arranger, a fabulous player and composer himself. But Oliver didn’t really understand the essence of Thelonious Monk. When I listened to that record right after it came off the presses I remember thinking to myself it didn’t sound right. And at the time I didn’t know enough music to understand why it didn’t sound right but it just didn’t. Now in retrospect I realize that Oliver didn’t understand Thelonious either rhythmically or harmonically. I don’t know if that was a function of not enough time to study the music and he just wasn’t aware of the music or whether it was a function of a determination on his part that he had to establish himself as the arranger so he was going to Nelson-ize Monk, so to speak.

“Either task was absolutely impossible because Thelonious’ music is just much stronger than anything that ever came out of the mind of Oliver Nelson. And it shows with that record. He just didn’t get it. But Hall Overton did get it. And I think it was primarily because Hall, like Don Sickler, had listened to Thelonious a great deal before he ever started to arrange his music. And then he had an intimate involvement with Thelonious. Oliver Nelson didn’t have that involvement with Thelonious. He basically wrote those charts at home for CBS. It wasn’t like Thelonious said, ‘Oh, I want Oliver Nelson to arrange for me.’ It was basically a case of CBS saying, ‘We want to do a big band Monk record and Oliver Nelson is our guy and he’s gonna do it.” And Oliver said yes and I’m sure he got paid very, very well for it. But I happen to know that Thelonious’ involvement is as minimal as one can get. Which means he arrived at the studio at the day of the date. And if you can listen to that Oliver Nelson record like a good musician or good listener can and cancel out the big band, you have a wonderful solo Thelonious Monk record.”

Listening to him talk, hearing the vitality in his voice and observing the wide-eyed enthusiasm he conveys for this topic, you can tell that this man loved his father dearly and has a deep, abiding respect for the legacy he left behind. As the overseer of the Thelonious Monk Institute, the number one son and primary purveyor of his father’s music, T.S. is proud to be the keeper of this flame.

“Thelonious was the most unique of a group of guys who were really so unique they were really all genius,” he beams. “The list is not very long but it includes names like Bird, Coltrane, Max Roach and Art Blakey, Paul Chambers and Miles and Dizzy and people like that. But even within that group, Thelonious was the most unique. Anyone from the outside looking in could see that and anyone who was on the inside when asked would tell you that. And so, in tackling his music you begin with the premise that it is impossible to copy. You don’t even try. The mold is broken and that’s that. Any time you’re dealing with Thelonious, you’re dealing with the unique. Anytime you get into it, he will take you somewhere. But you have to be yourself.

“If you’re playing tenor saxophone, don’t bring Charlie Rouse to the table, which is how a lot of younger or less established players might approach it,” he continues. “But you listen to Arturo Sandoval on ‘Bright Mississippi’…he does what Arturo Sandoval does and this is how he does it when he plays Monk. You listen to Roy Hargrove on ‘Little Rootie Tootie’ and he’s doing what he does when he plays Monk. Clark Terry does a different thing when he plays Monk. And that’s the key with Thelonious. He wanted to hear you play his stuff your way. That was critical. For the sake of order we had to create a structure for everyone. But then within that structure, no one was asked to do anything. Our attitude was, ‘Do whatever it is you do and however you feel about Monk on this particular tune at this particular time…say that. We’re not interested in what you heard years ago or what you felt you should do. Just do what it is that you do.’ So the whole approach of this project had to be based on the theme of be yourself. Because Thelonious don’t want to hear you play like anybody but you.”

T.S. is particularly pleased with how “Little Rootie Tootie” came out. “That’s my namesake tune,” he beams. “Naturally I did not want to do anything with it that would diminished or tarnish not only Thelonious’ reputation as a composer, my reputation as his son or the reputation of the arrangement that has been established for 35 years and was doing very well sitting there all alone unfettered. I wanted to make sure if I did a new arrangement at least it might be something that a lot of young players might relate to and want to cover, so that it might become a classic arrangement in its own right in maybe 10 or 15 years. It’s basically been covered the same way over and over for years and all of a sudden here’s a brand new approach to it. You can almost play our arrangement with a marching band at a football game. And I think great writers like Thelonious Monk…their music can stand those kinds of transitions.”

He also seems very pleased to have the vocal aspect represented on Monk on Monk , a move that was partly inspired by Carmen McRae’s great Carmen Sings Monk album on Novus from 1988. “I felt like at this juncture to have a tribute to Thelonious Monk we should have the singers,” he says. “Vocals represent a critical linkage for the music. All of the great players will tell you that when you play a song you’ll play it much better if you know the lyrics. People don’t remember that all the great singers came out of bands. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Joe Williams…they were all featured singers with bands. And that’s really when jazz was at its height of popularity, when the bands and the singers played together. At some point they got separated…singers when into a more pop thing and the bands became more cerebral and they both lost the audiences. But I want to return to that tradition where a band would play and then a featured vocalist would come out on just a couple of numbers. And once the music is established and the context is established, then that affords us the opportunity to perhaps expose some unknown singers. Let’s get some singers into the marketplace. We need a larger pool from which to draw. The record companies don’t have a large pool. They don’t even know where to look because the bands aren’t letting the singers sing. And I figure maybe that’s another ball I can start rolling. I can be the first established jazz band in maybe 20 years to let the singers sing now and then.”

Already firmly established as a major player in the jazz world, T.S. Monk is not entirely turning his back on his own R&B roots. He recalls that in 1974, while he was playing in his father’s band, he was also engaged in a wide variety of musical activities, including a doo-wop band in Stanford, Connecticut, a folk outfit that gigged down in the East Village, a big band led by Paul Jefferies, an African percussion ensemble and a fusion group called Natural Essence. He acknowledges that some of those aspects of his own musical past may emerge in future projects. “I still get people coming up to me and talking about ‘Bon Bon Vie’ (his big pop-disco-funk hit from 1980 with the T.S. Monk band). And it’s not something I shy away from because I had a lot of fun in that band.

“How many artists can you think of…particularly jazz artists…that are allowed to cross from funk to jazz back and forth like that?” he queries. “When I think about it, the only other cat who has been able to do that-and he’s done it better than I have-is Herbie Hancock. My own background allows me to do that. So on my next cd I’ll probably be doing some things that address my past, address my future, address my now. So there’ll be a little criss-crossing here and there. I might even do a little singing on my next CD. Who knows?” Originally Published