Sunday, November 20, 2005

No Monastery for Monk

In an earlier post, I noted that music aficionados are missing out if they don't take advantage of DVD as a medium for musical performances. Straight No Chaser is another example.

As any jazz buff can tell from the title, the film is about Thelonious Monk. It had a brief theatrical release in 1990, although I doubt it played in more than a dozen culturally plugged-in cities (I saw it in Santa Fe). Thanks to DVD, it's available for viewing at your leisure.

Monk had the habit of spinning, onstage and off, like a human radar antenna scanning the sky for alien contact. He wore funny hats, his among them one resembling a yarmulke. Monk's oral communication bordered on incoherence, a hipster's growling drawl. In the 1950s, he fitted perfectly with "Mr. Charlie's" concept of what "Negro" wigged-out musicians were supposed to be like.

As Straight No Chaser points out, though, the image was one-sided. Monk grew up not in Harlem but on the Upper East Side, and studied at Juilliard. The rehearsal segments we see in the film suggest that his groups worked from charts he prepared as meticulously as Gil Evans or Michel Legrand. Unlike many jazzmen of the period, he had no use for heroin. His writing and playing have more intellectual concentration and less frenzy (but no end of controlled energy) than those of anyone in the be-bop realm from which he emerged.

Emerged is the right word. By the mid-'50s Monk had developed his own unique and compelling style. There have been many keyboard jazz players who exhibited more overt virtuosity, but some of them are dull compared to Monk. No matter how often you've heard his recordings, there's always an element of surprise -- not infrequently, astonishment -- in Monk's playing: Where did he get that from? I think it's no exaggeration to say that Monk was one of the few composers who invented a musical language, like Beethoven, Debussy, or the Stravinsky of Firebird and Rite of Spring.

It's puzzling to try to reconcile this highly respected (in the latter part of his own time), world-famous artist with the figure we see in the backstage footage: withdrawn, seemingly almost indifferent to any conversation directed to him, given to off-the-wall and non sequitur replies. Was his head really in deep space, or was the jive-clown act part of a jazz musician's job description in those days? But the sidemen who appear with him in the film seem pretty normal (except, of course, for their prodigious talent). I suspect he was deeply depressed, maybe even a little schizophrenic -- which an interview with his son seems to bear out. Well before Monk died, he simply quit playing and composing.

Straight No Chaser is smartly edited, though its chronology is unclear and jumbled. The concert sequences have good sound for the period. (Besides Monk himself, we getto see and hear players such as Johnny Griffin, Charlie Rouse, and Phil Woods.) The DVD is essential viewing for Monk devotees and almost anyone who digs modern jazz. Even if your interest in the music is less than consuming, you may find Straight No Chaser interesting psychologically and sociologically. Here, in essence, is what hip meant to the generation of cool cats who took out the patent on it.

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