Sara Fishko is an Executive Producer and Host at WNYC, specializing in culture.
This web extra for Episode 8, Monk Town Hall Tapes, features photos of Thelonious Monk by W. Eugene Smith, and interview excerpts from author Robin Kelley, Bob Brookmeyer, Harry Colomby and Bill Crow.
We follow their progress, hear their thought processes and rehearsals and learn more about Monk. With original tentet members Phil Woods, Eddie Bert, Robert Northern; as well as Robin Kelley, Jason Moran, Sam Stephenson, Orrin Keepnews, others.
Photos: © 1957 - 1965, 2009 The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith
Audio: Jazz Loft audio clips courtesy Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
Monk was one of the first to come to a record date, and the band would say: ‘Where’s the music,’ and he’d say: ‘My briefcase. Here’s the first tune.’ And he would teach them by rote the music, and that way you learn it. You don’t learn much from reading something off paper. You have to—after you see the paper, you have to internalize it, make it part of you, and then you have to bring it back to the surface, and what the composer would like you to do with it, becomes part of you response. And then part of your response and why you’re there is how you view it, too. So Monk was what appeared to be a very factious personality, he was very smart and very organized, and so was his wife Nellie. And he was very serious about what he did. You know, he had fun with it, but you had to be serious to get it right so you could have fun with it. No half-way measures with Theo. He was really serious.
“He would move. Part of it was nervous, a kind of nervous energy – not sitting, standing, moving. But it was also to get the beat or the tempo or the purpose of the tune, he actually would do that. Later on, if he was particularly disturbed that day, that movement would be part of that. And he knew, later on when he acted a little strange, that he was protected by the fact that – and he used to hear that – a) it’s Monk, no matter what he does, it’s Thelonious Monk and it’s normal within those parameters.”
When he was in…in someplace in the orient, they have those tailors that’ll come and measure you up, and you pick out the material and in two days they’ll make you a bunch of suits for real cheap, so Monk decided he wanted to take advantage of that, and these guys come over to his room, but he wouldn’t get up to have them measure them. He was in bed, and they had to measure him while he was lying down.
This is a man who always dressed. He always had a tie on, always had a jacket. He began to wear hats more often in 1959. He didn’t wear a lot of hats before that. The difference was he was beginning to lose his hair. So hats became a central part of his clothing choices. But he was someone who was very formal in that respect. You never see him dressed up like a bohemian. And if you look at the photographs of Town Hall, his band was very, very formal. Dark suits, dark ties, white shirts. Very, very formal. That was Monk. He was very old school. And when he ended the concert, he would go to the microphone and say, Thank you very much. ‘Cause his mother raised him that way. To be gracious, to be polite, and these are not the kind of behaviors you associated with a detached personality.