Monk’s Music: Thelonius Monk and Jazz History in the Making
by Gabriel Solis
University of California Press
Here at the start of the 21st century, it’s no great shock to anyone to observe that pianist and composer Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917-1982) was one of jazz’s most enigmatic figures and is now one of its greatest. But that greatness was not always so – not at all. Monk’s Music: Thelonius Monk and Jazz History in the Making, by Gabriel Solis, examines the origin, evolution, and current standing of Monk’s place in the jazz world.
Solis, an assistant professor of music at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, blends cultural theory, biography, and musical analysis to show how Monk's importance has grown -- first in the closely focused avant-garde, to the present where he’s declared as an influence by musicians of all kinds.
First and foremost, the author concisely explains what is generally understood to be as Monk’s distinctive compositional and interpretive style – its developmental logic, musical unity, call-and-response, and riff-based, as well as Monk’s unusual feel for time – his sense of swing – and the playfulness of his work. As many musicians have observed, Monk’s music inhabits its own world – its own sphere, let’s call it – and Solis effectively examines the dimensions of that world.
Solis spends some time discussing Monk as a pianist and bandleader, and how Monk was at the center of modern jazz's creation during the 1940s, how he proved to be an influential teacher to many leading musicians of the 50s (Coltrane and Rollins, to name a pair), and how the canon of Monk’s work – not a tremendously large number of songs but certainly unique ones -- set the stage for the all kinds of experimentalism in the 1960s and '70s. As much as Monk contributed to bebop, he also pointed to realms beyond it.
The much of the weight of Solis’s discussion in the later parts of the book falls on the jazz canon itself, the mainstream and the margins, as well as the ways in which Monk, an outsider in many ways, came to be seen as one of the music’s truly original geniuses and, as such, a sort of emblematic figure of the entire genre -- along with Miles, Satchmo, and the Duke.
Chalk it up to Monk’s appearance on the cover of Time in February of 1964 and a sustained campaign on Monk’s behalf by cultural critic Martin Williams. In the move to make jazz into “serious music,” it needed to have “serious composers,” the idea of the composer modeled after European icons like Mozart and Beethoven – the artist as solitary hero. Solis is most engaging in his discussion of Monk’s work into the context of “conservatory jazz” and neoclassicism – embodied in the institutions of Jazz at Lincoln Center – and the mainstream.
Solis examines how musical lineages are created and, in the process, addresses the issue of how musicians use performance itself to continue, interpret, and dispute the history of musical tradition. He develops in great details the work of pianists Fred Hersch, Danilo Perez, and Jessica Williams in their relation to Monk’s music. The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s performance of “‘Round Midnight” provides Solis with a rich discussion of Monk and the avant-garde. And more contemporary performers like Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd are presented as finding different and countermainstream directions through the vehicle of Monk’s music.
As to any musician’s place in the “jazz canon,” whatever that term may mean, Solis wisely gives Monk the final say in the afterword, quoting the composer’s answer to the question of where jazz was going. “I don’t know,” responded Monk. “Maybe it’s going to hell. You can’t make anything go anywhere. It just happens.”
Always light but carrying weight, never easy to figure out despite its apparent simplicity, Monk’s musical legacy receives a fair-minded and thoughtful treatment in Solis’s book, which is well worth the trouble of both the casual listener and the serious musician.
BOS at LAD - 3/9/2008 - Vero Beach
Spring training in Florida is a glorious thing. The Grapefruit League plays during the best weather of the year in this part of the country, and if you live south Interstate 4, there are training facilities for 18 major league teams. Although competition for tickets is tougher than in years past for some teams (Yankees, Red Sox), in most cases you can snag tickets at the last minute and for a reasonable price. While not luxurious, the ballparks are small and friendly, and many of the best baseball experiences happened at spring training games. In fact, at the first game I ever attended (Red Sox at Phillies, 1997), I caught a foul ball. The ball was hit by a guy that never made it out of the minors, but there you go. I was hooked.
This year, my wife and I have an eight-month-old at home, so I won’t hit the half dozen or so games I usually manage each spring, but I’ve already got the MLB.TV package for all my full-season online viewing needs. This afternoon I’m taking in the Red Sox at Dodgers from Vero Beach, and I’m writing this as I watch.
The broadcast is from KCAL, Channel 9 in Los Angeles, so I’ll have the pleasure of listening to the timeless Vin Scully, who’s been the voice of the Dodgers since – wait for it – 1950. Amazing.
On the downside, the pregame ceremony honoring Vin Scully and Spanish-language broadcaster Jaime Jarrin was hosted by Larry King, who to my mind is as awful a broadcaster as Scully is great. King’s introductions of both announcers were typical models of King-ly sycophancy, sloppiness, and simple-mindedness.
So here we are in the bottom on the first and the Red Sox, having blown a scoring opportunity in the top of the inning, and Matt Kemp takes Dice-K deep for a three run homer. Kemp is a good young player, to be sure. Let’s hope Daisuke was just working on his control today and nothing more.
At this point, it’s appropriate for me to come clean. Disclosure time: Yes, I am a Red Sox fan, but I am not one of these bandwagon fans of the ’04 and ’07 championships. These days, I usually describe myself as a fourth-generation Sox fan – the original fanatic in the family being my great-grandfather Harry Lawrence Hayes, born in 1880, a lifelong resident of Portland, Maine, and a young man at the time of the Boston Americans won the first World Series in 1903. That team, which played its games at the Huntington Avenue Grounds and beat the Pirates. Cy Young, Jimmy Collins, and Chick Stah played for the ’03 champs. Imagine that. The guy who could win the Cy Young on your team is actually Cy Young.
Both great-grandad Harry and my grandfather Phil could remember the 1918 title, and yes, they went to their graves waiting for the next one. The sad litany of lost championships from 1946, 1967, 1975, and 1986 rings a little hollow now for many new fans, but the decades of hope and frustration were something that bound us all together.
With history in mind, watching the Sox and the Dodgers at Holman Stadium in Dodgertown, it seems appropriate to point out that this is the Dodgers last spring in their facility in Vero Beach. When Dodgertown opened in 1948 – a converted military base no longer in use with the end of World War II – it was home to a over 20 teams worth of players, the total of the Dodgers professional system, and the material demonstration of Branch Rickey’s vision about what a baseball organization should be. Broad and deep in talent, and always with the idea that they were developing not just baseball players – but Dodgers.
More importantly, however, Dodgertown and Vero Beach were the leading edge of Branch Rickey’s efforts to desegregate baseball, first in the person of Jackie Robinson, then Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella, and then scores of other players. Although it took far too long for most of the black players – all the way through the 50s – eventually the stadium and, following that, the community of Vero Beach gave up its Jim Crow ways.
Bottom of the third now. Matsuzaka looks fit and strong – maybe more than last year – but he seems to still have that problem of getting a little mental in certain mundane situations. I won’t say that he’s a choker, exactly – but he has a tendency to over-think, over-pitch, and just have the wheels come off the cart in the middle of obviously everyday baseball situations. Too many pitches, not enough efficiency.
Clayton Kershaw, top of the fourth, eats up the Boston hitters. A big stud lefty, Kershaw throws a fastball in the mid- to high-90s and has a wicked hook. He struck out 29 batters in 24 2/3 innings in AA ball last season. Brutal stuff. Ah, here in the bottom of the fourth, Dice-K is out after 72 pitches and Bryan Corey is now on the mound for the Sox. Corey, who arrived in a low-level trade with the Texas Rangers, is a right-hander who has very good splits against left-handers – and in that sense he’s an “oddball” pitcher for the Sox staff, along with Tim Wakefield. Corey’s uniform number – 30 – suggests a spot on the team is his to lose.
All right, top of the fifth and the guys with the high numbers are starting to appear on the field. Mirabelli thrown out for the first out of the inning. Mirabelli’s career stolen base stats: 12 seasons, three steals in three attempts, all of which we can assume happened because of the “surprise factor.” When we speak of high numbers and Mirabelli, we’re talking about his weight. And now Non-Roster Invitee Joe Thurston is picked off first.
Bottom of the fifth. Manny catches a fly ball to end the inning, which makes six in a row for Bryan Corey. I'd say he makes the team -- and that's just the sort of question that a spring training game like this can answer: Who's going to take that 5th spot in the Red Sox bullpen?
We’re getting into those dead innings of spring training, the 5th, 6th and 7th – but the ends of games can be quite spectacular with the entrance of players who are talented and eager to impress or, conversely, marginally talented and desperate to hold onto a roster spot.
Here at the end of the sixth, I’m thinking about the annoyance of injuries this time of year – to fans and teams with an eye on the strong season, but, more significantly, to all the fantasy players out there. The Red Sox are little nervous about Josh Beckett’s back, but the Dodgers really have their worries. Joe Torre has to contend with Andy LaRoche’s thumb, Jeff Kent’s hamstring, Nomar Garciaparra’s wrist, and, er, Tony Abreu’s, er, ass. His ass hurts – that’s what the official word is: pain in the buttocks and upper groin area. Good luck with all that.
Top of the seventh and the Dodgers are on their fifth pitcher. If then Men in Blue have anything, they have pitching. Mirabelli hits a two-out double and, whaddaya know – there’s a pinch runner whose number is 78, Jonathan Van Every, who’s been kicking around the Indians organization for a half-dozen years. And Non-Roster Invitee Joe Thurston strikes out. Pack your bags, Number 64.
At any rate, all this talk of injury brings to mind Moises Alou – often injured himself – but who I recently read has one of the most disgusting practices I’ve ever heard of in baseball. Alou, who’s a freakishly good hitter at times, is one of those rare players who doesn’t wear batting gloves. He gets a better feel for the bat without them. To keep his hands tough, however, he makes sure each day to treat his hands with a very special substance: his own urine.
Speaking of “oddball” pitchers, the Dodgers open the top of the eighth with their sixth pitcher of the day, 38-year-old Mike Meyers – who was with the Red Sox in 2004. In fact, Mike Meyers was the specialist versus lefthanders -- the very job it appears Bryan Corey may have nailed down today. The circle is complete.
Of course, Alou, who now plays for the Mets, will be out with a hernia problem. Now, my question is that, if The Alou Urine does such a good job of protecting his hands, why doesn’t Moises just pee on those other parts of his body that are constantly breaking down? Including the hernia, as contorted as that might be. Why didn’t Nomar Garciaparra just have Moises pee on his knee (or whatever) when they were with the Cubs in 2004?
As for all of Alou’s injuries, did it ever occur to him that part of the reason he keeps getting hurt is because he is slathered in his own urine? Does urine slather? You bet it does.
All right, bottom of the eighth. Sunstroke and dehydration are setting in for the fans – especially the elderly. Most of the players on the field now have numbers better suited for football linesman. Manny is already on the bus talking with the fellas about what strip club they'll be going to tonight. And the Dodgers score on a passed ball by backup-backup catcher Dusty Brown. No, not that Dusty Brown.
Top of the ninth. Great play at third by Number 94. He doesn’t have a name on the back of his jersey, but that was a hell of a nice play. And the sixth pitcher for the Dodgers ends the game with a strikeout, sending the Red Sox to their sixth consecutive loss in spring training – which, anyone will tell you, means absolutely nothing.
Still, maybe Moises Alou is available for a little freelance work.