Jazz Revolutionaries: Monk & Dizzy
by David Yearsley, October 11, 2017
Legion are the books on jazz that wave the banner of “revolution” above the chapter devoted to bebop, the improvised American music of swerving light and impossible speed, incandescent optimism and brooding melancholy that transformed style—not only musically, but also sartorially, and, indeed, socially—from the early 1940s and into the 1950s. Few legitimate music historians and commentators still adopt the rhetoric of insurrection when it comes to bop, pointing out instead that musicians are fundamentally molded by their traditions even if they choose to take those traditions in different, often difficult, directions.
Yet in this month of centennial commemorations—and condemnations—of the Russian Revolution, one can’t one help but note that two pioneering American musicians—the pianist Thelonius Monk and the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie—were born within weeks of each other and just weeks before the October Uprising in St. Petersburg in 1917. The Monk and Gillespie families joined the great interwar exodus from the Jim Crow South. Each musician stemmed from a musical and cultural heritage forged, as Robin D. G. Kelly puts it in his meticulous and moving biography of Monk, across “one the greatest revolutions and counterrevolutions in the history of the modern world”—the Civil War and its long, enduring aftermath.
2017 is the centenary of Boppers and Bolsheviks.
Monk was born October 10th, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Gillespie eleven days later and a hundred miles away, across the state line in Cheraw, South Carolina. Their births are being marked this month with concerts and symposia at venues around the country, most prestigiously at the culture citadels of New York’s Lincoln Center and Washington’s Kennedy Center.
Yet however radical the innovations of this these founding fathers of bop may have been, the storming of the Winter Palace was an event of rather greater geo-political significance than those after-hours jam session anchored by Minton and Gillespie at Minton’s
Playhouse in Harlem in the early 40s. These were the raucous conclaves that helped birth the new style, whose tunes and techniques form the core of the jazz repertoire from Midwestern high schools to Manhattan clubs. Here’s betting that more teenagers around the world know the chord changes to Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” and Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” than they do the opening line to the Communist Manifesto. Hey man, can you play “There is a spectre haunting Europe” in B-flat?
But before we strip the revolutionary medals off the Monk and Gillespie lapels, we might recall that the trumpeter’s 1979 autobiography To Be or Not to Bop invoked the rhetoric of rebellion in describing the origins of jazz and its eventual global impact. “You could foment revolution with the drums,” Gillespie writes. He uses that sentence twice in the book, and it has the ring of something he said often. Aware of this African rhythmic language’s subversive power, slave owners suppressed drumming since their chattels could use their ad hoc instruments to “talk to somebody two miles over there and say, ‘Let’s get these muthafuckas. Get ready.’”
Gillespie goes on to claim that that such repression could not silence this outlawed music forever: “We tricked them, we tricked the white people. We created a music that is now internationally known as having been created in the United States, and it gained acceptance and precedence over all the other music of the hemisphere and other parts of the world because of its rhythm, its harmonic variety, and ironically enough, because of the power with the United States had to disseminate and spread it.” Thus a musical expression of social discontent achieves global domination, Gillespie adopting the language of American cultural imperialism, but saving himself from charges of cooptation with a well-chosen “ironically enough”—an insertion not unlike a bebop melodic feint. Still, the trumpeter’s triumphalist interpretation of his music—bop being responsible especially for the harmonic complexity he cites—is economically (in several sense of that word) summed up in the name of the Jazz at Lincoln Center venue that will host several Gillespie commemorations later this month: Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola.
His clowning on-stage antics ranging from disarming modesty to multisyllabic verbiage to goofy dancing to raspy singing, Gillespie was bebop’s ebullient jester to Monk’s laconic oracle. As a teenager Monk played the organ and toured with an evangelist. It is not surprising, therefore, that a hymn-like devotion encloses some of his most famous compositions, “‘Round Midnight” and “Ruby, My Dear.” Even at the outrageous tempos so often demanded of novices aspiring for admission into the bop brotherhood, Monk maintained a priestly poise, adamantly dissonant, askew the beat but miraculously in time, as if cleaving to, or even creating, an alternate chronology of ongoing events. He answered both to the real drummer and the proverbially different one inside his head.
One hears this incisive brilliance right from the origins of bop documented in live recordings from May of 1941 made at Minton’s by an ensemble fronted by the virtuoso guitarist, Charlie Christian. Urged on by Christian’s relentless, spirited strumming on the swing standard “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” Monk rips off crisp arpeggios with his right hand while his left romps through stride-like figures reminiscent of the older Harlem pianists he so admired. It doesn’t sound like revolutionary zeal that pushes Monk on with an unstoppable gusto a long way from the reticent mode so often associated with him. As Kelly points out it is difficult to know how much the heavy doses of Thorazine and other medications used in massive excess to combat Monk’s chronic mental health problems—now to be classified as severe bipolar disorder—contributed to the later sparseness that would become the hallmark of his unique pianism and his eccentric persona. Many have mistakenly attributed this distinctive musical style to technical insufficiency, but anyone who has tried to mimic some of Monk’s more demanding solos with their wide-ranging gestures and angular runs will quickly realize how difficult it is to play like the master. The racism of drug “enforcement” and police brutality also marred Monk’s professional life, poverty and oppression effecting what he played and how he played it.
On the Minton’s Stompin’ at the Savoy from the spring of ’41 Gillespie follows Monk’s buoyant solo with typical exuberance that seems perpetually on the cusp of disaster. Gillespie doesn’t have—and doesn’t want —the laser-like precision that his younger trumpet colleagues and competitors, the short-lived Fats Navarro and even-shorter-lived Clifford Brown, would later command. The apparently reckless abandon of Gillespie’s playing is in fact the product of prodigious control and joyous abandon.
Monk, in the obstinate repetitions inscribed in many of his compositions like “Well You Needn’t” and blues lines such as “Straight, No Chaser,” often adopts a seemingly recalcitrant musical stance, unwilling to yield to the inherent lyricism of even his own ballads or the rapid course of a bop challenge piece. The Monkish approach also appears to court disaster, yet in reality the technique behind this nonchalance is ironclad, the nerve unflappable. This apparent penchant for musical danger can be heard at Minton’s in 1941, the first among the very few recordings that survive on which Monk and Gillespie appear together. Both men were then just twenty-three years old.
Nearly a decade on the same dialectic of daring and composure animates a classic run of tracks from a studio session of June, 1950 compiled on Bird: The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve. Included here are several fascinating out-takes that record Gillespie spinning out on the blazing circuits of another swing hit, Leap Frog, played at impossible speed. The trumpeter is even heard to say after one breakdown. “Man, what’s going on here?” Unfazed by drummer Buddy Rich’s incessant bashing, Monk unfailingly keeps the pace—metrically tangential and essential, as Gillespie might have said in his comically pompous diction.
The pair was not reunited on record for another two decades, when Gillespie led a group called Giants of Jazz on tours of Europe in the late 60s and early 70s. In the meantime Monk had been on the cover of Time in 1964; he became one of just a handful of jazz musicians granted that often dubious distinction. The editors apparently believed him a safely apolitical African-American musician during a tumultuous period of race relations. But Kelley argues eloquently and vehemently against this view of Monk, casting his life as an abiding fight for fundamental freedom. To be sure Monk was a man of few public words, but these, like his playing, implied much more than they made explicit. The short interview with Monk printed in Gillespie’s autobiography done runs like this:
How did [Dizzy] sound when you first heard him?
Monk: “He sounded good.”
Even on the page, the statement has the lapidary look of a larger truth.
The television broadcast of the Giants of Jazz sextet concert in Copenhagen in 1971 begins with ‘Round Midnight‘ in progress, Monk revisiting his most famous composition with the slow striding back-and-forth of the left hand and the jarring dissonances of the right hand, its little finger, as flat as the rest but schlepping a big gold ring so that the pinky jabs have even more punch: when that ringed finger lands on ivory or ebony sharp flares shoot into up through the tune’s melancholy moonlight. After its over there is long and loud applause from the Danes, Monk standing solemnly, but appreciatively to face the audience. Gillespie lowers the microphone from the high position it always assumed so as to be on at the level of the high bell of his angled trumpet: “I’m sure Mr. Monk appreciates your generosity.”
At the Copenhagen concert the transplanted Carolinians born 1917 were in their fifties, middle-aged by broader American standards, but senior citizens by the demographic measures of their depleted bebop cohort. Over the decades Gillespie had remained busy and beloved. Monks successes were fleeting and too few; he spent much of his life in desperate circumstances, mentally and financially, and would soon withdraw from public performance even as his compositions secured their position as classics.
Several recordings survive from various stops on these tours, both men in consistently outstanding form. No musicians’ styles were ever more quickly recognizable. Tautologically, it is what they play and how they play it. Besides skeins of unique utterances, each had a mental library of melodic and rhythmic figures, go-to licks: Gillespie’s syncopations starting slowly up high and accelerating downward in vertiginous chromatic twists and somersaults, and Monks brittle cascades and clanging dissonances are among the most distinctive stereotyped sounds in jazz. But these self-fashioned archetypes are more often unleashed as rebels against expectation, as if the revolution happens not in grand events but in the moment.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)