Thelonius Monk

Born Oct 10, 1917

Sam Smith, MultitudesJust as the Harlem Renaissance has been treated mainly as a literary phenomenon, so it was with the beat era.

After all, it is writers and not artists and musicians who get to tell the story afterwards. I never paid much attention to the writers and poets. While a couple of my friends mounted teletype paper rolls behind their typewriters in imitation of the author of “On the Road,” for me it was Miles and Bird and Thelonious who were the epitome of beatness, not Kerouac or Ginsberg. And even Kerouac described his writing as “spontaneous bop prosody.”

Besides, Miles and Thelonius actually came to Boston, the former once playing most of a concert with his back to the audience and the latter once sitting silently at the piano as his partners turned the introduction into a endless bass solo punctuated by a single note on the keyboard.

“Play something,” a man sitting at a front table demanded. Thelonious let the cigarette fall from his mouth to the stage and then kicked it onto the man’s table. Rising slowly, he stepped down from the stage and began to circle the perimeter of the room staring blankly at his audience. He eventually left the nightclub and headed for the airport.

Years later, Time Magazine would report: “In Boston Thelonius Monk once wandered around the airport until the police picked him up and took him to Grafton State Hospital for a week’s observation. He was quickly released without strings, and though the experience persuaded him never to go out on the road alone again, he now tells it as a certification of his sanity. “I can’t be crazy,” he says with conviction. “’cause they had me in one of those places and they let me go.”

Much of the confusion about the state of Monk’s mind is simply the effect of Monkish humor. He has a great reputation in the jazz world as a master of the “put-on,” a mildly cruel art invented by hipsters as a means of toying with squares. Monk is proud of his skill. “When anybody says something that’s a drag,” he says, “I just say something that’s a bigger drag. Ain’t nobody can beat me at it either. I’ve had plenty of practice.”

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