by Jack Sohmer
Straight, No Chaser:
The Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk
by Leslie Gourse
(Schirmer Books, New York, 340 pages, $27.00)
from Jazz Notes 9/4 1997Copyright © 1997, Jack Sohmer
Author of several well-received books on such major jazz singers as Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Nat Cole, Joe Williams, and Ella Fitzgerald, Leslie Gourse has now turned her hand to one of the most fascinating pianists and composers jazz has ever known. It is by now no secret that Thelonious Monk was an original almost from the beginning of his career, and, though his roots were clearly in the stride idiom of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, as well as the harmonic richness of Duke Ellington, his unconventionally sharp-angled, wide-interval-leaping style of playing early on kept many from appreciating the full extent of his unique gifts. Seemingly emerging from the shadows of early bebop, Monk cast an entirely different image from those of his immediate colleagues, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell. Many, but certainly not all, jazz lovers whose tastes had been formed during the late 1930s through the mid-40s, when Roy Eldridge, Buck Clayton, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Don Byas, Art Tatum, and Teddy Wilson were the foremost modern improvisers, were immediately bowled over upon hearing the flaming brilliance of Dizzy, Bird, and Bud. Even though they may not have fully understood the rhythmic and harmonic intricacies of bop at the time, open-minded listeners could and did respond with fervor to the technical virtuosity, swing and improvisational originality of these archetypal boppers. These were faculties they could understand and appreciate, as they were common to all good jazz. But Monk did not play that way, although all indications are that he could if he had so chosen. Where Dizzy, Bird, and Bud exploited their techniques to the fullest, challenging even the most facile bassists and drummers to keep up with them, Monk increasingly, befuddlingly, and incomprehensibly stripped his style to the bare bones by retaining only the most essential elements of the phrases that entered his mind. Only his best friends, Bud and Diz among them, knew what he was up to.
Thus, even at the outset of this music. Monk's image was different. People found him hard to understand. Even his name, Thelonious Sphere Monk, although a composite drawn from both family lines, seemed "weird". Unlike Dizzy and Bird, who were notably outgoing and sociable in public, Monk was a loner who, when he did speak, was as laconic as he was purposefully inscrutable. Obviously, he enjoyed cultivating, as well as capitalizing on, the aura of mystery that enveloped his persona. Journalists of the time must have been put off by his shaded-eye bulwark and inaccessible posture, for there is a dearth of written material on him from the 1940s. Like Pee Wee Russell, his one-time ingeniously matched session-mate, Monk was probably the most frustrating interview subject imaginable. All the more credit, then, to Ms. Gourse, who has managed to fill a decent-sized book with an account of his life. In addition to referencing around a hundred articles and books relevant to Monk, his music, his sidemen, his recording and gigs, and his times, she has also accumulated an impressive amount of supplemental information from personally conducted interviews. As a consequence of the importance of this newly published data, Ms. Gourse wisely preserved the content of her interviews in the form of verbatim quotations or, when necessary for the sake of brevity or further clarification, in the form of paraphrase. In any case, all source citations are conveniently provided at the end of each chapter.
Among the people Ms. Gourse interviewed and/or quoted were Monk's sister Marion, his wife Nellie, his nephews and son T.S. Monk, Jr., his managers Harry and Bobby Colomby, Lorraine Gordon (formerly the wife of Blue Note label's Alfred Lion and the Village Vanguard's Max Gordon), Stanley Dance, George Wein, Rudy Van Gelder, and, among many other musicians, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Scott, Lou Donaldson, Billy Taylor, Randy Weston, Marian McPartland, Idrees Sulieman, Clark Terry, Johnny Griffin, Paul Jeffrey, Percy Heath, Steve Lacy, Eddie Bert, and Ron McClure. Oddly enough, although there are the necessary references to Orrin Keepnews as record producer during Monk's sojourn at Riverside, there are no indications that he afforded Ms. Gourse a personal interview, which, if true, is a shame, for he could have no doubt provided a lot of additional insight into Monk's working methods in the studio. However, there is a valuable source of educated speculation on Monk's physical and mental health provided by Dr. Everett Dulit, who, although formulating his diagnosis ex post facto, makes a good case for the brain damage caused by continued drug abuse, particularly among creative artists.
Through her artful use of relevant research material, both primary and secondary, as well as her avoidance of controversial value judgments and armchair psychological evaluations, so often the failing of other recent biographers, Leslie Gourse succeeds in depicting Monk the man and musician as realistically as we can hope for. She makes no attempt to discuss technical matters beyond stating that although he used an unorthodox fingering method on piano he was more traditionally grounded than many would think when it came to scoring his compositions. Those who are musically literate and wish to pursue this particular matter further are referred to Mark S. Haywood's "Rhythmic Readings In Thelonious Monk," as published by Scarecrow Press in their Annual Review Of Jazz Studies 7, 1994-95, while other articles along the same lines may also be found listed in Ms. Gourse's bibliography. In addition to over 40 photos, many of them previously unpublished, Straight, No Chaser also includes a list of his 91 compositions and a handy discography, which encompasses in adequate detail the 60 sessions that Monk recorded between 1941 and 1972.