Of the few hundred times I listened to Monk, Johnny Griffin, drummer Roy Haynes, and bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik tear the roof off the Five Spot, I probably heard Baraka, shouting his approval and urging them on from his table near the bandstand. It was August of 1958 and Baraka (when he was still LeRoi Jones) had been an East Village resident for the past year. He became a Five Spot regular when Coltrane was with Monk in the summer and fall of 1957. His constant presence gave him unique insights into Monk’s music and the challenges it created for the musicians who played with him. Indeed, Baraka was one of the few critics to admit that "opening night [Coltrane] was struggling with all the tunes." Baraka just didn’t come to dig the music, he studied Monk.
I just spent the past fourteen years of my life researching and writing a biography of pianist/composer Thelonious Monk, and over thirty years attempting to play his music. My obsession with Monk can be traced back to many things and many people, but paramount among them is Amiri Baraka. Let me explain.
While Baraka’s fellow Beat generation writers embraced Monk because they heard spontaneous, instinctual feeling and emotion as opposed to intellect, Baraka saw no such opposition; he was careful not to divorce consciousness and intellect from emotion. He writes, "The roots, blues and bop, are emotion. The technique, the ideas, the way of handling the emotion. And this does not leave out the consideration that certainly there is pure intellect that can come out of the emotional experience and the rawest emotions that can proceed from the ideal apprehension of any hypothesis." Like his insights about Monk’s technique, the point underscored Baraka’s general claim that bebop was roots music, no matter how deep the imperative for experimentation, because it carries deep emotions, historical and personal. The music of the Blues People.
In fact, he was arguably the first American critic, along with Martin Williams, to really understand what Monk was doing and why a new generation of self-described avant-garde musicians was drawn to Monk’s music and his ideas. By the time Baraka entered the fray, most critics had either dismissed Monk for having no technique or formal training as a pianist, or they praised him for his eccentricity and inventiveness precisely for his lack of technique or formal training. For Baraka, the whole issue of Monk’s technique was nonsense: "I want to explain technical so as not to be confused with people who think that Thelonious Monk is ‘a fine pianist, but limited technically.’ But by technical, I mean more specifically being able to use what important ideas are contained in the residue of history or in the now-swell of living. For instance, to be able to double time Liszt piano pieces might help one become a musician, but it will not make a man aware of the fact that Monk was a greater composer than Liszt. And it is the consciousness, on whatever level, of facts, ideas, etc., like this that are the most important parts of technique."
Teddy Wilson, though only five years older than Monk but considered a master tickler of the swing generation, had nothing but praise for Thelonious’s piano playing. "Thelonious Monk knew my playing very well, as well as that of Tatum, [Earl] Hines, and [Fats] Waller. He was exceedingly well-grounded in the piano players who preceded him, adding his own originality to a very sound foundation." Indeed, it was this very foundation that exposed him to techniques and aesthetic principles that would become essential qualities of his own music. He heard players "bend" nots on the piano, or turn the beat around (the bass note on the one and three might be reversed to two and four, either accidentally or deliberately), or create dissonant harmonies with "splattered notes" and chord clusters. He heard things in those parlor rooms and basement joints that, to modern ears, sounded avant-garde. They loved to disorient listeners, to displace the rhythm by playing in front or behind the beat, to produce surprising sounds that can throw listeners momentarily off track. Monk embraced these elements in his own playing and exaggerated them.
It should be noted that the source of the various passages from Baraka’s writings on Monk, as well as the interview segments and book passages Mr. Kelley quotes in this appreciation of Amiri Baraka are meticulously footnoted — as they are in Kelley’s exhaustively-researched book. For the sake of webzine brevity we elected not to include Robin’s footnotes and source materials… and also to urge you to run out and purchase your copy of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original… and do that with a quickness!
Robin D.G. Kelley, author of the exhaustively-researched and superb new Thelonious Monk biography Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original (Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster), contributed the following piece to the recent 75th birthday commemoration for Amiri Baraka. He granted re-print permission to The Independent Ear. Read Robin’s contribution to our ongoing dialogue between African American music writers Ain’t But a Few of Us by clicking on the month of October.
“Do not give up. Be persistent,” would be an advice from people who practice meditation for a long time. “During the process of trying your consciousness is being transformed and you can overcome your destructive emotions that are bothering you, as well as your pain and suffering, are the word by Buddhist monk Matthew Rickard. It is a centuries-old legacy of Buddhism available to everyone. To use it, you just need a desire and tenacity. Sounds tempting, but what science does think about this?
Referencing this special book, here’s a passage on Ellington’s sense of Thelonious (chapter 10, p. 138) during a time when Monk and his music were widely misunderstood, or dismissed as some sort of hopeless eccentric by musicians, critics, and the listening public: