By Geoff Dyer
He didn’t like new things. Like a blind man, he preferred stuff he’d used for a long time, even small things like pens or knives, things he’d come to feel at home with.
Walking with him one afternoon, we were waiting for the lights to change at a street corner near his place—we were always near his place. He rested his hand against a lamppost, patting it affectionately:
—My favourite lamppost.
Everyone in the neighbourhood knew him. Walking to the shops, kids called out, Hey, Monk, howya doin? Where ya bin, Monk? and he mumbled something back, stopping to shake hands or just sway back and forth on the sidewalk. He enjoyed being recognized like this—not a fame thing but a way of enlarging his home.
He and Nellie moved into an apartment in the West Sixties and stayed there, with their children, for thirty years. Twice fires forced them to move out and twice they moved back. Most of the space was taken up with a Baby Steinway, jammed halfway into the cooking area as though it were a piece of kitchen equipment. When he played his back was so close to the stove it looked like he might catch fire. Even if he was composing it made no difference what kind of bedlam was going on around him. He’d be working on some really tricky piece with kids crawling in and out of the piano legs, radio playing loud country music, Nellie cooking dinner while he worked away serene as if he was in the cloisters of some old college.
—Nothing made any difference to him, long as no one messed with him or Nellie; didn’t care if no one heard his music, long as he was playing it. For six years, after he got busted for possession and lost his cabaret card, that room was practically the only place he did play.
He and Bud Powell were in a car, got pulled over by the police. Bud was the only one with anything on him but he froze, sat there clutching the folded paper of heroin. Monk snatched it from him and sent it butterflying out the window, landing in a puddle and floating there like a little origami yacht.
Monk and Bud sat and watched the red and blue lights from the prowl car helicoptering around them, rain sweating down the white glare of the windshield, the metronome flop of wipers. Bud rigid, holding himself barbed-wire tight. You could hear the sweat coming off him. Monk already ahead of everything, just waiting for it to happen, seeing the rain-black shapes of police lurching toward them in the rearview mirror, keeping his breath steady. A flashlight shined into the car, Monk eased himself out, a puddle clutching at his foot and then flattening itself down again like someone shocked briefly out of sleep.
—What’s your name?
—You got ID?
Monk’s hand moved toward his pocket—
—Steady, motioned the cop, loving the threat of saying it slow like that.
Handed him a wallet with the cabaret card, the photo on it so dark he could have been anyone. He glanced at Bud in the car, his eyes full of rain and lights.
—Thelonious Sphere Monk. That you?
—Yeah. The word came clear of his mouth like a tooth.
Rain falling into pools of blood neon.
—And who’s that in the car?
Taking his time, the cop bent down, picked up the stash of heroin, peered into it, dabbed a little on his tongue.
He looked at Bud, shivering in the car, looked back at the cop.
—This yours or his?
Monk stood there, rain falling around him. Sniffed.
—Then I guess it’s yours. The cop took another look at the cabaret card, tossed it like a cigarette into a puddle.
—And I guess you won’t be needing that for a while, Thelonious.
Monk looked down at the rain pattering his photo, a raft in a crimson lake.
Was Monk got busted but he never said nothin. Something like that, wouldn’t even occur to him to rat on Bud. He knew what kind of a state Bud was in. Monk was weird, coming and going out of himself like he did, but Bud was a wreck, a junkie, an alcoholic, half the time so crazy he was like a jacket with no one inside it—no way could he have survived prison.
Monk did ninety days, never talked about prison. Nellie visited him, told him she was doing everything she could to get him out but mostly just sat there waiting for him to say something back to her, reading his eyes. After he got out he couldn’t play in New York. The idea of ordinary work never entered his mind and by then he’d just about made himself unemployable anyway, so Nellie worked. He made a few records, played out of town a few times but New York was his city and he didn’t see why he should have to leave it. Mainly he just stayed at home. Laying dead, he called it.
The un-years was what Nellie called them. They came to an end when he was offered a residency at the 5-Spot for as long as he wanted, as long as people wanted to see him. Nellie came most nights. When she wasn’t there he got restless, tense, pausing for an extra-long time between numbers. Sometimes, in the middle of a song, he called home to see how she was, grunting, making noises into the phone that she understood as a tender melody of affection. He’d leave the phone off the hook and go back to the piano so she could hear what he was playing for her, getting up again at the end of the song, putting another coin in.
—Still there, Nellie?
—It’s beautiful, Thelonious.
—Yeuh, yeuh. Staring at the phone like he was holding something very ordinary in his hand.
He didn’t like to leave his apartment and his words didn’t want to leave his mouth. Instead of coming out of his lips the words rolled back into his throat, like a wave rolling back into the sea instead of crashing onto the beach. Swallowed as he spoke, forming words reluctantly as if language were a foreign language. He made no concessions in his music, just waited for the world to understand what he was doing, and it was the same with his speech, he just waited for people to learn to decipher his modulated grunts and whines. A lot of the time he relied on a few words—shit, motherfucker, yah, nawh—but he also liked saying stuff that nobody understood. He loved big words as names for his songs—crepuscule, epistrophy, panonica, misterioso—big words that were joky too, words as difficult to get your tongue around as his music was to get your fingers around.
Some nights he’d give a little speech from the stand, the words lost in brambles of saliva.
—Hey! Butterflies faster than birds? Must be, ’cause with all the birds on the scene in my neighborhood there’s this butterfly and he flies any way he wanna. Yeah. Black-and-yellow butterfly.
He’d started the bebop look of berets and shades but that had become a uniform like the music. When he was playing now he liked to dress in suits as sober as possible, or sports jackets, setting these off with hats that defied logic but which he made look completely ordinary—as though a “mollusk” hat worn by Asian peasants were as essential an accessory to a suit as a collar and tie.
Did his hats have any effect on his playing? His face filled with a huge grin:
—Nawh, haha. Well, I dunno. Maybe they do…
When someone else was soloing he got up and did his dance. He started quietly, tapping a foot, clicking his fingers, then he raised his knees and elbows, rotating, shaking his head, meandering everywhere with his arms outstretched. Always looking like he was about to fall over. He spun around and around on the spot and then lurched back to the piano, giddy with purpose. People laughed when he was dancing and that was the most appropriate reaction as he shuffled around like a bear after its first taste of strong alcohol. He was a funny man, his music was funny, and most of what he said was a joke except he didn’t say much. His dancing was a way of conducting, finding a way into the music. He had to get inside a piece, till it was a part of him, internalize it, work himself into it like a drill biting into wood. Once he had buried himself in the song, knew it inside out, then he would play all around it, never inside it—but it always had that intimacy, that directness, because he was at the heart of it, he was in it. He didn’t play around the tune, he played around himself.
—What is the purpose of your dancing, Mr. Monk? Why do you do it?
—Get tired of sitting at the piano.
You had to see Monk to hear his music properly. The most important instrument in the group—whatever the format—was his body. He didn’t play the piano really. His body was his instrument and the piano was just a means of getting the sound out of his body at the rate and in the quantities he wanted. If you blotted out everything except his body you would think he was playing the drums, foot going up and down on the hi-hat, arms reaching over each other. His body fills in all the gaps in the music; without seeing him it always sounds like something’s missing but when you see him even piano solos acquire a sound as full as a quartet’s. The eye hears what the ear misses.
He could do anything and it seemed right. He’d reach into his pocket for a handkerchief, grab it, and play with just that hand, holding the handkerchief, mopping up notes that had spilled from the keyboard, wipe his face while keeping the melody with the other hand as though playing the piano came as easy to him as blowing his nose.
—Mr. Monk, how do you feel about the eighty-eight keys of the piano. Are they too many or too few?
—Hard enough playing those eighty-eight.
Part of jazz is the illusion of spontaneity and Monk played the piano as though he’d never seen one before. Came at it from all angles, using his elbows, taking chops at it, rippling through the keys like they were a deck of cards, fingers jabbing at them like they were hot to the touch or tottering around them like a woman in heels—playing it all wrong as far as classical piano went. Everything came out crooked, at an angle, not as you expected. If he’d played Beethoven, sticking exactly to the score, just the way he hit the keys, the angle at which his fingers touched the ivory, would have unsteadied it, made it swing and turn around inside itself, made it a Monk tune. Played with his lingers splayed, flattened out over the keys, fingertips almost looking like they were pointed upward when they should have been arched.
A journalist asked him about that, about the way he hit the keys.
—Hit ’em any way I feel like.
Technically he was a limited player in that there were all sorts of things he couldn’t do—but he could do everything he wanted to, it wasn’t that he was held back by his technique. Certainly no one else could play his music like he could (if you played the piano properly, there were all sorts of little things you couldn’t get at) and to that extent he had more technique than anyone. Equilibrium: he could think of nothing he wanted to do and couldn’t.
He played each note as though astonished by the previous one, as though every touch of his fingers on the keyboard was correcting an error and this touch in turn became an error to be corrected and so the tune never quite ended up the way it was meant to. Sometimes the song seemed to have turned inside out or to have been constructed entirely from mistakes. His hands were like two racquetball players trying to wrong-foot each other; he was always wrong-fingering himself. But a logic was operating, a logic unique to Monk: if you always played the least expected note a form would emerge, a negative imprint of what was initially anticipated. You always felt that at the heart of the tune was a beautiful melody that had come out back to front, the wrong way around. Listening to him was like watching someone fidget, you felt uncomfortable until you started doing it too.
Sometimes his hands paused and changed direction in midair. Like he was playing chess, picking up a piece, moving it over the board, hesitating and then executing a different move from the one intended— an audacious move, one that seemed to leave his whole defense in ruins while contributing nothing to his attacking strategy. Until you realized that he’d redefined the game: the idea was to force the other person to win—if you won you lost, if you lost you won. This wasn’t whimsical—if you could play like this then the ordinary game became simpler. He’d got bored with playing straight-ahead bebop chess.
Or you can look at it another way. If Monk had built a bridge he’d have taken away the bits that are considered essential until all that was left were the decorative parts—but somehow he would have made the ornamentation absorb the strength of the supporting spars so it was like everything was built around what wasn’t there. It shouldn’t have held together but it did and the excitement came from the way that it looked like it might collapse at any moment just as Monk’s music always sounded like it might get wrapped up in itself.
That’s what stopped it from being whimsical: nothing makes any difference with whimsy, whimsy is for low stakes. Monk was always playing for high stakes. He took risks and there are no risks in whimsy. People think of whimsy as doing whatever you feel like—but there’s less to whimsy than that. Monk did whatever he wanted, raised that to the level of an ordering principle with its own demands and its own logic.
—See, jazz always had this thing, having your own sound so all sorts of people who maybe couldn’t have made it in other arts—they’d’ve had their idiosyncrasies ironed out—like if they were writers they’d not ‘ve made it ’cause they couldn’t spell or punctuate or painting ’cause they couldn’t draw a straight line. Spelling and straight-line stuff don’t matter necessarily in jazz, so there’s a whole bunch of guys whose stories and thoughts are not like anyone else’s who wouldn’t’ve had a chance to express all the ideas and shit they had inside them without jazz. Cats who in any other walk of life wouldn’t’ve made it as bankers or plumbers even: in jazz they could be geniuses, without it they’d’ve been nothing. Jazz can see things, draw things out of people that painting or writing don’t see.
He insisted his sidemen play his music the way he wanted but he wasn’t dependent on them the way Mingus was. Always it was Monk and the piano, that was really what the music was about. How well they knew his music mattered more to Monk than whether they were great soloists. His music came so natural to him that it baffled him, the idea that anyone could have trouble playing it. Unless he was demanding something beyond the physical possibilities of the instrument he assumed his sidemen should be able to play whatever he asked.
—Once I complained that the runs he had asked for were impossible.
—You mean they don’t give you a chance to breathe?
—Then you can play ’em.
People were always telling him they couldn’t play things, but once he gave them a choice—You got an instrument? Well, you wanna play it or throw it away?—they found they could play. He made it seem stupid to be a musician and not be able to do things. Onstage he’d get up in the middle of playing something, walk over to one of the musicians, say something in his ear, sit down again and resume playing, never hurrying, wandering around the stage as his hands wandered around the tune. Everything he did was like that.
—Stop playing all that bullshit, man. Swing, if you can’t play anything else play the melody. Keep the beat all the time. Just ’cause you’re not a drummer doesn’t mean you don’t gotta swing.
One time Hawk and Trane were having trouble reading some of the parts and asked Monk for an explanation.
—You’re Coleman Hawkins, right, the man who invented the tenor? And you’re John Coltrane, right? The music’s in the horn, between you you should be able to work it out.
Most of the time he said little to us about how he wanted us to play. We’d ask him questions two or three times and get no response, he’d be staring straight ahead as if the question were addressed to someone else, to someone else in another language. Made you realize you were asking him questions and you knew the answers all the time.
—Which of these notes should I hit?
—Hit any of ’em, he said at last, his voice a gargle-murmur.
—And here, is that C sharp or C natural?
—Yeah, one a them
He kept all his music very close to him, didn’t like other people seeing it, he kept everything close to him. When he went out he liked to be wrapped up in a coat—winter was his time—and he preferred not to stray too far. At the studio he’d have his music in a little book, reluctant to let other people see it, always plunging it back into his coat pocket when he was through, locking it away.
During the day he walked around, wrapped up in himself, figuring out his music, watching TV or composing when he felt like it. Sometimes he paced for four or five days in a row, walking the streets at first, going south as far as Sixtieth, north as far as Seventieth, west as far as the river and three blocks east, then gradually restricting his orbit until he was walking around the block and then sticking to the rooms of the apartment, pacing nonstop, hugging the walls, never touching the piano, never sitting—then sleeping for two days straight through.
There were also days when he was stranded between things, when the grammar of moving through the day, the syntax holding events together fell apart. Lost between words, between actions, not knowing something as simple as getting through a door, the rooms of the apartment becoming a maze. The use of things eluded him, the association between an object and its function was not automatic. Entering a room, he seemed surprised that this is what a door existed for. He ate food as if he was astonished by it, as if a roll or sandwich was infinitely mysterious, like he had no recollection of the taste from last time. Once he sat through dinner, peeled an orange like he’d never seen one before, silent all the while until, looking down at the long curl of peel, he said:
—Shapes, a huge grin breaking over his face.
Other times, when he felt the world encroaching, he became very still, retreated right down inside himself. He’d sit still as an armchair, so calm he looked asleep even with his eyes open, breath moving the hairs of his beard slightly. There is footage of him sitting so still that only the drifting smoke tells you it’s not a photograph. Talking to Monk anyway was like talking transatlantic, a delay in things getting through—not a split second but ten seconds sometimes, so long you had to ask a question three or four times over. If he got tense the delays in responding to stimuli of any kind got longer and longer until there was no response at all, his eyes coating over like ice on a pond. Most of the times he got into difficulties were when he was apart from Nellie or in unfamiliar surroundings. If something went wrong and he felt threatened he’d disconnect very suddenly, shut himself off like a light.
If Nellie was around when he got lost in himself like that she made sure everything was OK and waited for him to find his way out. Even then she felt good being with him as he went maybe four or five days without saying a word until he broke his speech-fast and called out:
—Nellie! Ice cream!
—Whatever it was inside him was very delicate, he had to keep it very still, slow himself right down so that nothing affected it. Even his pacing was a way of retaining his stillness, like a waiter on a ship at sea juggling a glass of water through all sorts of angles just to keep it upright. He’d keep pacing until what was inside him became so tired of twitching around that he could collapse exhausted. These are only guesses, it was impossible to know what was going on in his head. He looked through his glasses sometimes like an animal that’s been hibernating, checking to see if it is warm enough to emerge again. He was surrounded by his home, by his eccentricities, then by his silence. One time when we’d been sitting together a couple of hours and he hadn’t said anything I asked him:
—What’s it like in that head of yours, Monk?
Took his glasses off, held them up to his eyes, and turned them around as if they framed the face of an optician peering into his eyes.
—Take a look. I stepped forward, put my head into the glasses, studied his eyes. Sadness, lively flecks of something.
—Shit. Haha. Reached up and put the glasses back on his head. Lit a cigarette.
I used to ask Nellie similar things. She knew him better than anybody, so well that whatever I asked her, no matter how weird Monk was acting, she’d say,
—Oh, that’s just Thelonious.
If he had been a janitor in an office or someone in charge of supplies at a factory, waking in the morning and coming home to eat his dinner, she would have looked after him just the same as she did when they were jetting first-class all over the world. Monk was helpless without her. She told him what to wear, helped him into his clothes on the days when he seemed too bewildered even to dress himself, when he got straitjacketed in the sleeves of his suit or lost in the intricacies of knotting his tie. Her pride and fulfillment came from making it possible for him to create his music. She was so integral to his creative well-being that she may as well be credited as co-composer for most of his pieces.
She did everything for him: checking in bags at airports, looking after his passport while he stood still as a column or whirled and shambled around, people looking at him, passing around him wondering what he was doing there, shuffling around like a down-and-out, tossing his arms out like he’s throwing confetti at a wedding, wearing one of his crazy hats from some part of the world he’d just come back from. And when he was on the plane and Nellie buckled his seat belt over his overcoat, people would still be wondering who he was, the head of some African state lurching toward independence or something. There were times when Nellie looked at him and wanted to cry, not because she pitied him, but because she knew one day he would die and there was no one else like him in the world.
When Nellie was in the hospital he sat and smoked, watched a dusty sunset peer in through the rain-grimed windows. He glanced up at the clock hanging from the wall at a surrealist tilt. Nellie had this thing about stuff being straight; Monk preferred things crooked and to get her used to the idea he’d nailed the clock to the wall like that. Every time she looked at it it made her laugh.
He walked from room to room, stood in the places she stood, sat in her chair, looked at her lipstick and makeup, her glasses case and other stuff. Before going to the hospital she had tidied everything away. He touched the fabric of her dresses hanging neat and empty in the closet, looked at the shoes waiting for her in rows.
She did so many things for him that most objects in the apartment were a mystery to him and he saw them for the first time: the casserole dish, stained from years of use, the steam iron. He picked up her pots and pans, missing the familiar noise of their clanking together. He sat at the piano, building a tune out of all the sounds he missed as she moved around the apartment: the rustle of her clothes as she got dressed, water running in the sink, the clatter of plates. She called him Melodious Thunk and he wanted to write a song for her that sounded just like that. Every five minutes he got up and peered out of the window, checking in case she was heading up the street.
Each day when he visited her she was more worried about him than herself. He sat by the side of her bed, not speaking, smiling when the nurses asked if everything was OK. He stayed for the full duration of visiting time because there was nothing else he wanted to do.
Reluctant to return to the apartment, he walked over to the Hudson to watch the sun set over the freeway expanse of water. A famished wind snatched the smoke from his cigarette. He thought about Nellie and the song he was writing for her, a private thing for piano that no one else would touch. Once he’d written it it would be finished—he’d play it just as it was, unaccompanied with no improvising. He didn’t want Nellie to change and he didn’t want his song about her to change either. As he looked out across the river a smear of yellow-brown light welled up over the skyline like paint squeezed from a tube. For a few minutes the sky was a blaze of dirty yellow until the light faded and oil-spill clouds sagged again over New Jersey. He thought about heading back to the apartment but stayed on in the sad twilight and watched dark boats crawl over the water, the grief of gulls breaking over them.
Driving to a gig at the Comedy Store, Baltimore. With him Nica and Charlie Rouse, friends for life. Virtually everything Monk did he did for life. Pulled into a motel in Delaware. Monk was thirsty, which meant he had to have a drink. Everything was like that with him. He’d stay up three or four days straight because he didn’t feel like sleep and then he’d sleep solidly for two days, anywhere. If he wanted something he had to have it. He walked into the lobby, filling the doorframe, looking dark as a shadow to the desk clerk who jumped slightly when he saw him. Unnerved not just by his blackness, his size, but by the way he ambled in there like an astronaut. Something about him, not just the eyes either, his whole bearing, looking like a statue that might fall over at any moment. And something else too. That morning the booking clerk had scouted around his apartment for clean underwear. Unable to find any, he’d put on a pair of shorts he’d already worn for three long days, blemished yellow and giving off a vague smell, he kept wondering if other people noticed. Monk happened to sniff as he came into the room and that did it, that was one of the things that did it. Maybe nothing would have happened if he’d had clean shorts, but as it was, the slight sticki-ness, the itch that had been there all day became unbearable when this huge colored walked in, sniffing the air like it was dirty. Immediately he said there were no rooms, before Monk had even uttered a word. Staring, wearing a crazy hat like he was a pope or cardinal in Africa.
—Saywhaman? Whatever he said lost in a saliva-strangle of sound. A voice like it was coming over the radio from Mars.
—No vacancies. I’m afraid we have no rooms.
—You want water?
Monk nodded like a sage, standing in front of the man, like he was getting in his way, obstructing his view. Something about him was making the desk clerk shake with anger. The way he was standing there, like a striker on a picket line, determined not to budge. Couldn’t get a fix on him, not a hobo, dressed . . . dressed—shit, he couldn’t tell rightly how he was dressed: tie, suit, coat—the clothes were smart but he looked a mess, like his shirttails were hanging out or like he was not wearing socks.
—No water, the booking clerk said finally, the words gurgling out like the first rusty belch of water from a tap suddenly twisted.
—No water, he said again, clearing his throat. He was more frightened now, the colored’s yellow eyes staring at him like two planets in space. Even more unnerving was the way Monk was staring not at his eyes but at a spot two inches above them. Quickly he passed a hand over his forehead, feeling for a zit.
—No water. You hear me?
The colored stood there, like he’d turned to stone, like he’d gone into some nigger trance. He’d never seen anyone so black. Now he was thinking that the colored was maybe mentally defective in some way, dangerous, a maniac. Staring at him like that.
—You hear me, boy—he felt more confident now, as soon as he called him boy he felt the situation becoming less a specific confrontation between two individuals, more something general, like he had people on his side, backing him up, a man with a mob behind him.
—This a hotel you don’t got a glassawar? Must be lot a thirsty muthafuckahs all them full rooms you got.
—Don’t get smart, don’t even think about getting smart—
At that moment Monk moved a step forward, blocking the light completely, becoming a silhouette; looking into his face was like stepping into a cave on a bright day.
—Now we don’t want any trouble here, said the booking clerk. The word “trouble” smashed like a bottle. His chair squeaked back an involuntary inch, anxious to keep the same distance between him and this man looming over him like a cliff. Looked down at the colored’s hands hanging at his side, a big cheek-ripping ring on one finger. That’s when it occurred to him that if he had a gun he’d have pulled it on him —looking back on it later he realized it was this thought on his part rather than anything the colored had done that escalated the situation. Each word triggered the next. The word “trouble” pulled the word “gun” out of its holster and the word “gun” brought the word “police” hurrying after it.
—Like I said, we don’t want no trouble here, so you leave quickly or I’m calling the police.
Standing there, dumb as stone, dumb like the only two words he knew were “glass” and “water.” The expression on his face had changed now, like he wasn’t seeing anything at all, like he didn’t know where he was, no idea. Swelling up in himself like he might explode at any moment. The clerk was almost too terrified to dial the police, worried that might be the action to spring him out of whatever he was in—but doing nothing was even more frightening. Decided the way to do it was as blatantly as possible, tugging the phone over, picking the receiver up slowly, dialing like he was dipping his finger in a pot of maple syrup.
—Police? All the time he was speaking he kept one eye, both eyes, on the colored, whose only movement was the rise and fall of his chest. Breath.
—Well, he’s refusing to leave. Standing there like I don’t know, like he’s gonna cause trouble . . . I’ve told him that . . . Yes, I think he might be dangerous.
He had just replaced the phone—slowly, like everything he was doing now—when another colored and some rich-looking woman came bustling into the lobby.
—Thelonious? What’s happened? Before he had a chance to speak the booking clerk intervened.
—This freak with you? His fear was subsiding, he felt confident now of his ability to goad the situation any which way he liked. The woman looked at him like he was an insect crawling along a wall. The kind of woman who wherever she went would be surrounded by lawns of privilege, even her politeness a form of contempt, the friendliness she lavished on some serving to remind others of the riches they were excluded from.
—What’s going on, Thelonious? Still not speaking, just that glare turned on the booking clerk.
—You’d better stick around, lady. The police are on their way and they’ll want to ask some questions.
—Be here any minute.
By some tacit agreement the woman—sounding like the queen of England—and the other colored maneuvered him out of the lobby, back to the car. Monk had got into the driver’s seat and turned the engine on just as the cops arrived, three of them clambering out of the car. The desk clerk ushered them over to the automobile, keeping in back, out of sight. A flurry of questions, the cops barely polite, not knowing what to make of it but knowing some show of nightstick authority was called for. Told him to turn off the key, the engine. He ignored them, stared straight ahead like he was concentrating hard on the road on a foggy night, unsure of the way. One of the cops reached in, twisted off the ignition himself. The English woman saving something.
—Lady, you just keep quiet. I want everybody outta the car. Him first . . . Hey, you, get outta the car.
The colored hunched over the wheel, hands perfectly positioned like he was the captain on the bridge of a ship passing through a storm.
—Listen, you fuckin deaf or somethin? Outta the car, get outta the fuckin car.
—Let me handle this, Steve.
Pushing his head close to Monk’s face, the second cop spoke quietly, hissing practically.
—Hey, you dumb-ass nigger, you got about ten seconds to get outta this fuckin car before I pull you out. You hear that?
The colored sitting there, big shoulders, still wearing the crazy pope hat.
—OK, you have it your way. Instantly grabbed him by the shoulders, pulling him half out of the car, but his hands were still clinging to the steering wheel like he was handcuffed to it.
—Goddam. The cop started pulling at his wrists, which were thick, corded with muscle, immovable. The English bitch yelling, the cops yelling too.
—Lemme get at this dumb-fuck . . . Getting in each other’s way, one of them drawing his nightstick and pounding it down on Monk’s hands, hard and fast as he could in the confines of the car, hard enough to draw blood, making the knuckles puff up and the English woman screaming about he’s a pianist, his hands, his hands . . .
At the Vanguard it was packed, Monk playing solo. A couple of college students bartered with the doorman, trying to get a table right up close by the piano.
—You kidding? You get here halfway through the set and expect a table at the front. People want to see his hands, man . . .
At a hotel in Boston he walked around the lobby for an hour and a half, inspecting the walls, peering at them like they were pictures, running his hands over them, orbiting the room, alarming guests. Asked for a room and was told to get out before there was any trouble. Leaving the hotel, he walked the revolving doors for ten minutes, pushing patiently like a pit pony. At that night’s gig he played two numbers and left the stage. An hour later he came back, played the same two songs again and then sat staring at the piano for half an hour until the band left the stage and the manager played “Who Knows” over the PA. People got up to leave, wondering if they’d seen him crack up before their eyes. No one jeered or complained, a couple of people spoke to him, touched his shoulder, but he made no response. It was as if everyone had stepped thirty years into the future into an installation entitled “Thelonious Monk at the Piano,” a museum exhibit simulating the atmosphere of jazz clubs of old.
Later, in a panic dash to find Nellie and head for the airport, he was stopped by a state trooper. Frazzled by tiredness, he refused to say a word, not even his name. He slept for a long time, dreamed he was in the hospital and when he woke he found he was eating food spooned to him in bed, looking up at nurses like a man trapped beneath the rubble of a collapsed building. Lights peered into his eyes like he was an animal. Held himself close, in possession of a secret so precious he had forgotten what it was. People had been saying he was crazy for so long that he shuffled along in Low-ell pajamas like someone who had been there a long time. Played a few chords on the piano and the doctors thought they noticed some untutored musical instinct twitching from his hands, hitting notes that had a kind of ugly beauty. Tinkly, thunking things. Other patients liked his playing, one howling along, another joining in with a song about a man and a faithful horse that died, a couple of others just crying or laughing.
Silence settled on him like dust. He went deep inside himself and never came out.
—What do you think the purpose of life is?
He spent the last ten years of his life at Nica’s place just across the river in New Jersey, a view of Manhattan filling the tall windows, lived there with Nellie and the kids too. He didn’t touch the piano because he didn’t feel like it. Saw no one, rarely talked or got out of bed, enjoyed simple sensations like smelling a bowl of flowers, seeing the leaves spongy with dust.
—I’m not sure what happened to him. It was like he was in the grip of a prolonged flinch—like something had grazed him, as if he had stepped out into traffic and a car had just missed him. He got lost inside the labyrinth of himself and puttered around there, never found a way out.
Maybe nothing happened to him externally. Only the weather in his own head was important and suddenly everything clouded over as it had many times before—but this time for ten years. It wasn’t despair, almost the opposite: a form of contentment so extreme that it was almost torpor, like when you stay in bed for a whole day, not because you can’t bear to face the horror of the day, but because you don’t feel like it, because it’s nice lying there. Everyone has that impulse to do nothing but it rarely takes root. Monk was used to always doing what he felt like and if he felt like staying in bed for ten years he’d do that, regretting nothing, wanting nothing. He was at the mercy of himself. He had no self-discipline because he’d never needed any. He’d worked when he felt like it and now he no longer felt like it, no longer felt like anything.
—Yes, I would say there was a lot of sadness in him. The things that happened to him, most of it stayed in him. He let a little of that out in music, not as anger, just a bit of sadness here and there. “Round Midnight,” that’s a sad song.
Autumn in New York, a brown sludge of leaves underfoot, a light rain barely falling. Halos of mist around trees, a clock waiting to strike twelve. Almost your birthday, Monk.
The city quiet as a beach, the noise of traffic like a tide. Neon sleeping in puddles. Places shutting and staying open. People saying goodbye outside bars, walking home alone. Work still going on, the city repairing itself.
At some time all cities have this feel: in London it’s at five or six on a winter evening. Paris has it too, late, when the cafes are closing up. In New York it can happen anytime: early in the morning as the light climbs over the canyon streets and the avenues stretch so far into the distance that it seems the whole world is city; or now, as the chimes of midnight hang in the rain and all the city’s longings acquire the clarity and certainty of sudden understanding. The day coming to an end and people unable to evade any longer the nagging sense of futility that has been growing stronger through the day, knowing that they will feel better when they wake up and it is daylight again but knowing also that each day leads to this sense of quiet isolation. Whether the plates have been stacked neatly away or the sink is cluttered with unwashed dishes makes no difference because all these details—the clothes hanging in the closet, the sheets on the bed— tell the same story—a story in which they walk to the window and look out at the rain-lit streets, wondering how many other people are looking out like this, people who look forward to Monday because the weekdays have a purpose which vanishes at the weekend when there is only the laundry and the papers. And knowing also that these thoughts do not represent any kind of revelation because by now they have themselves become part of the same routine of bearable despair, a summing up that is all the time dissolving into the everyday. A time of the day when it is possible to regret everything and nothing in the same breath, when the only wish of all bachelors is that there was someone who loved them, who was thinking of them even if she was on the other side of the world. When a woman, feeling the city falling damp around her, hearing music from a radio somewhere, looks up and imagines the lives being led behind the yellow-lighted windows: a man at his sink, a family crowded together around a television, lovers drawing curtains, someone at his desk, hearing the same tune on the radio, writing these words.
This story, and others, feature in Chimurenga Magazine #11 – Conversations With Poets Who Refuse To Speak (Jul 2007), an issue about silence, disappearing oneself as act. Though it’s often one of abdication, could it be defiance, resistance even? – a challenging idea, in a culture where struggle about seeking exposure, giving voice, making visible and all that stuff
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