There was a time when I thought I could be, like, pure jazz. That was the time when I thought such a thing existed, for which I beg forgiveness. I listened to Kenny Kirkland and Herbie Hancock and I thought, ‘that’s for me.’ Because youth does as youth is, I was for a moment or two deluded. I read how Paul Grabowsky had transcribed every Bud Powell solo! Or maybe I didn’t read that – perhaps someone said so. But I know I did read in The Age how much he admired Powell, and that he said, ‘my playing is nothing like his.’ My head commenced spinning. Comparison! With an American! A dead, black one who’d played with, like, Charlie Parker! I can’t even tell you how young I was (and the number wouldn’t tell the story anyway).
When I was twenty, I was in my final year as an undergraduate and we had to do a project that involved a large essay about something – I can’t remember the exact terms of the assignment but I decided I’d write about Thelonious Monk. Monk’s music had fascinated me, mostly from a compositional point of view (because I was already wanting to be someone who wrote the book) but also from the peculiarity of the manner in which he addressed the piano keyboard. Up at my parents’ place in the country is a box that contains a large number of pencilled transcriptions of Monk improvisations undertaken as a part of this project. Some of them I even learnt to play. He was different, he was an individual. Also, some people I was admiring like Marcus Roberts used words to describe him such as ‘the grand master’.* I stress here it was his difference and individuality that appealed to me as much as his centrality to a jazz canon into which I was hoping one day to insert myself. What a difference a couple of years makes. I had begun to write tunes, and by this time I’d even written a couple I felt I could be pleased with, and that I’ve played once or twice in the years since. I was about to hobble off to do a Diploma of Education, the less said about which the better, but after that I came back to music study and by then I was very serious about doing my own thing.
In a manner of speaking this post follows on from another, which I didn’t advertise at all so I’m buggered if I know if anyone read it or not. Doesn’t matter, either. But what I’m still on about is going back to stuff previously known and experienced, things for which one had great respect and affection and that gave one clues as to how to proceed, things that informed and delighted and explained and challenged. But also: things to which one has not paid regular or unbroken attention since then.
So part of this has also to do with La La Land, about which I wrote already; as I said there, it’s a film from which I was initially dissuaded by the strength of popular (negative) opinion largely emanating from my musician friends when first it appeared, but which I think (having now seen it, several times) is actually a quite marvellous picture, dealing with stuff I personally understand and respond to accordingly. In it, Seb (Ryan Gosling) is listening obsessively to a passage of Monk’s piano playing, from ‘Japanese Folk Song’ on the album Straight, No Chaser, then having a crack at transcribing (well you don’t see him writing but essentially it’s the same thing) and playing it. Having done a bit of this myself, way way back in the day, it got me to thinking again about Monk. And I went back to the album from which Seb is transcribing, and the piece with which he is so enamoured.
‘Meeting old friends’ sounds a bit clichéd. A bit simplistic too, perhaps. But coming back to Monk I find so much that I know and that I value, some of which I’d forgotten, and so I shan’t go without mentioning the happiness that hearing his music again, brings me. I can play ‘Blue Monk’ more or less in the manner in which he played it, because I did all that transcription and so forth, and I show this piece to students from time to time and demonstrate how his sense of simplicity is the best way for the piece to make its point. I esteem the opening of Monk’s Music, where W. H. Monk (no relation, as far as I’m aware)’s ‘Abide with me’ gives way to ‘Crepuscule with Nellie’ and you hear, beyond reasonable doubt, the influence of church music on Monk’s blues sensibility.
Being older now however, I hear Monk differently, even while I recognise what I was pretty sure I knew. I am struck now by his consistency. His intention seems stronger to me now than ever, and I can’t believe I never noticed it as such before. His sound seems so crafted, so determined, so much the product of maintained consideration, that his individualism is making a greater than ever impact. There’s always been a line of thinking that said that Monk can’t play the piano, and then there’d be someone who said but you should have heard […] where he was ripping up and down the keyboard, chops city – all that can be dispensed with.
His sound seems totally original, and breathtaking in its organisation. Nothing is actually left to chance. Crunchy sounds can be repeated; they are an intrinsic part of a system of which he is in charge. I’m a big admirer of Mark Tucker’s paper ‘Mainstreaming Monk: The Ellington Album’ in the Black Music Research Journal 19/2 (1999). I read this when I was PhD-ing, and it brought into focus stuff that I hadn’t thought about in such terms myself but which made absolute sense to me. Riverside Records wanted to make Monk acceptable to a wider audience, so they had him do a record of Ellington tunes. Tucker writes:
In its neutral affect and half-hearted delivery, the record conveys a message of resistance – to commercialism, to critical notions of kinship and tradition within the jazz world, and most of all, to the power leveled by those in the music business who controlled the means of production and distribution. In making the Ellington album bland and unexceptional, Monk announced that he would not be pushed into the mainstream – let the mainstream come to him instead. He challenged anyone to wrest from him the artistic freedom that he claimed as his and his alone. Monk realized that he could pay no greater tribute to Ellington than to declare absolute musical independence.
It’s the last point that I take most enthusiastically to heart. I’ve dreamed of taking my trio on the road to all the festivals announcing a Monk tribute show, so that when the punters come along expecting us to play ‘Round midnight’ or ‘Epistrophy’ or ‘Four in one’ but instead hear my originals, I can say, that’s the example I took from him. Do your own damn’ thing. The great example from model creative artists is their creativity. That’s what’s to be emulated. Tribute shows tell a rather depressing story; the effort to honour a model by seeking to reproduce his or her creative effort seems sadly wasteful and even defeatist. As though everything had already been said and all we could hope to do was measure up, in imitation. Ridiculous, eh.
There is definitely a place for transcription, and what Seb is doing in La La Land is entirely defensible as he seeks to get to the middle of what Monk is up to. But it’s what you do with it after that that really counts. Monk’s example goes so far beyond the notes that he played.
*Actually Roberts himself didn’t actually say this, it was the author of the liner notes on Deep in the Shed (Novus/BMG, 1990), Stanley Crouch. But to put it in context: ‘[T]he lessons of Thelonious Monk have not been lost on this young man. Of the grand master, Roberts says, “When you play one of Monk’s blues, you can’t just play the head and then start to improvise. His music is so strong and so logical it defines the direction of the improvisation.”‘ So, you know, he was looking pretty serious. I felt I could take a lead.