Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In praise of: Thelonious Monk

This is the late great Melodious Thunk in Oslo, 1966, with Charlie Rouse on sax and possibly Larry Gales on bass and Ben Riley on drums, in a 10-minute version of “Blue Monk”. It is not a second too long.

I saw him play solo that year or thereabouts. In Tauranga. In the Tauranga Girls’ College hall. Impossible to imagine anything like that happening now.

My father had to attend the concert because he was on the school’s board of governors. I have no idea why he took me along (I was 13 or so) but I’m glad he did. It changed my life. Well, imagine what it was like in Tauranga in 1966 seeing the greatest pianist and composer in jazz not compromising an inch. I’d never heard anything like it, and never have since.

Plus he was black. Really black. New Zealand was a more homogeneous place then (i.e. more boring). I grew up seeing ancient kuia with mokos and being beaten up in the playground by Yvonne Toitoi from the Oropi pa, so there was always a sense of cultural diversity – but Monk was something else. I have always wondered what he made of us, and who looked after him. There is no mention of the visit in Leslie Gourse’s excellent biography Straight, No Chaser.

Monk played in Auckland and after the concert there was a party in St George’s Bay Road. Thanks to the sailors present, jazz cigarettes were smoked. Monk played some pieces by Ravel and Debussy and then some duets with David Galbraith, a concert pianist who lived across the road. Maybe the duets were what he played with Galbraith – I wasn’t there, obviously: this is what I recall my friend Bernard Brown telling me about the evening. It had the same effect on him as the Tauranga concert did on me: we still talk about it, 40-plus years later.

I wonder what concerts I could take my children to in New Zealand in 2010 that would be as life-changing. Wilco, yes. Not John Mayer, that’s for sure.


capuchin said...

Fergus said...

The Australasian tour gets a page in Robin D.G. Kelley's recent definitive bio. Seems like Monk had a great time, but the good stories are from the Australian leg.

Stephen Stratford said...

Thanks, Capuchin. I'd forgotten that poem.

And thanks for the pointer Fergus. I'll see if our library has that. Do you remember what year it was?

Fergus said...

End of last year. It's one of those very detailed primary biographies, so a BYO perspective read, if you know what I mean. I loved it.

Stephen Stratford said...

If I've got the numbers right, this is the 500th QUQ blogpost.

Phew. It could so easily have been about Cilla Black.

Chris Bell said...

Tauranga Girls College Hall? I've just tweeted that. Almost impossible to imagine. There's an excellent essay, 'Fragments of a Lament for Thelonious Monk' in Russell Hoban's collection 'The Moment Under The Moment' (Hoban is also a Monk enthusiast):

"On the margin of the moment where you made notations, Thelonious, at The Five Spot in Cooper Square in the rain and the fog when I was young."

Stephen Stratford said...

According to Chris Bourke,, the performance I saw was in 1965 (two years after sexual intercourse began, according to Philip Larkin's poem "Annus Mirabilis"). And I had forgotten that Monk toured here under the auspices of Chamber Music NZ. Ch-ch-ch-changes.