birds music

Tattooed Brains

Further to my recent post about the Thelonious Monk biography here are some related thoughts.

Another biography I got out the library over the summer was Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head. Both Monk and Syd had this nut thing thrown at them and in both cases there was a definitely a reason for that, but it just begs the question as to whether madness is a requisite for true artistic endeavour. Probably not, but maybe we can say that often the very best lurk close by to the seeds of madness.

One other thing in common is that mental outlooks in both cases tended to have a retrograde effect on commercial success. This is truly some sort of madness in that we can equate madness finally with the inability to feed oneself and this sort of commercial success kamikaze turn ultimately ends up as the inability to feed oneself. In Syd’s case this probably wasn’t helped by the fact that he was able to feed himself because somehow there was always money for him.

Towards the end of Monk’s life he lost interest in playing the piano. There was a piano in Nica‘s appartment that he could have used. Barry Harris apparently often played it and sometimes Monk would leave his door open to indicate that he was listening but the desire to express himself had gone. That’s sad but in the end, why not? He’d done it all before. You can end up like a performing seal. Bring me blessed silence finally O Lord.

Vincent Van Gogh‘s another of those guys who was dipping a bit into the insanity pool. I love this segment from Kurosawa‘s Dreams (actually I love all the segments of Kurosawa’s Dreams) with Martin Scorsese playing the painter and that beautiful Prelude 15 by Chopin.

jazz music

Monk Biography

Thelonious Monk, Minton's Playhouse, New York, N.Y., ca. Sept. 1947 8William P. Gottlieb 06241)

I’ve been waiting a long time for a decent biography of Thelonious Monk, one of my favourite musicians and (certainly after understanding some of the things from the book) absolutely integral influences. In fact the one great integral influence when all’s said and done and his impact on Miles as he says in his autobiography

I think a lot about Monk these days because all the music that he wrote can be put into these new rhythms that are being played today by a lot of young musicians – Prince, my new music, a lot of stuff. He was a great musician, an innovator, especially in his composition and writing.

Quite right although I would quip with the last sentence. Ok especially in his composition and writing but also especially in his playing. Listen hard to an album like Criss Cross and you may see what I mean. But of course not just Criss Cross.

Anyway Robin G. Kelley wrote the book and the family looked on him favourably and generally I would say he’s done a good job. I’ve read some other jazz biographies and I know what the failings are of the genre. The word hagiography can often be applied and that’s natural really in that it’s a bit perverted to set out to write a biography about someone you don’t care for. At times the narrative veered scarily towards the tour itinerary list interspersed with odd anecdote of one of the people present. But the sheer depth of research and accumulation of authentic recollection raises it above certain other works which I could name, but won’t.

To put that bluntly. I think a lot about Monk these days. I’ve thought a lot about Monk since I first heard him in 1973. By that time his career was pretty much over. He could still play but it had become meaningless to him. The feeling I get after reading the book is that he just put too much into those 30 years between the late 30s and the late 60s. That was 30 years of a lot of stuff going down. You can’t innovate at that level and that intensity for those many years without suffering some damage. In fact his stamina and physique allowed him to retain his incredible creative power for as long a period as pretty much anyone, (Armstrong, Ellington etc.) despite his massive intake of things which weren’t good for his health.

One thing the book shows is the debt that all Monk fans have to the two most important women in his life, his patron, Pannonica de Koenigswarter but above all his wife Nellie.