My life began with one perplexing question: Who is daddy?
Let me explain. From my earliest recollections, adults, when first meeting me, would invariably ask the question, “Do you know who your father is?” The query came from musicians and fans alike. I didn’t really understand the question at first, because the answer seemed so obvious. My father was my daddy. Of course, they would follow up with statements like, “You know he’s a genius,” which really meant nothing to a five- or ten-year-old. They would add proclamations like, “He changed the music,” and/or “His music will be here for the next 300 years.” That also meant absolutely nothing to me. However, though I couldn’t imagine 300 years, I could imagine one. So when told he would be a bigger name in 50 years, that did seem like a long, long time from then, so I chalked it up to nonsense, in my own toddling way. It seemed to me that in fifty years, I would be an old man — and surely dad would’ve been forgotten by then.
In my early teen years, having by then seen a lot of major artists come and disappear into obscurity, I was convinced these proclamations from ardent fans were pure hyperbole. But at fifteen, I began my love affair with drums. My understanding and views of music changed, and I clearly realized dad was a true badass. But so were his buddies Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, and, of course, Max Roach (my teacher), and many others. I was clear on the huge influence of artists like Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, and the impact they made on western music. I figured dad was definitely in the crowd, but I also noticed that even those greatest of artisans pretty much said the same things about my dad.
The author’s father, mother (Nellie Monk) and sister (Boo Boo). (Photo published in Time Magazine, Feb. 1964)
Now you must understand that to me, Thelonious Sphere Monk was just daddy. He took me and my sister, Boo Boo [nickname], everywhere, and taught me how to treat girls, spin tops and change my sister’s diapers, among many other things — he did all of that Mr. Mom stuff. I can’t recall even one time in my life when I ever called him Thelonious, or Monk, or pop, or anything other than daddy. I was far more focused on getting a chance to play with him, than who he was to the world.
My first real clue about how admired my father was as a musical innovator came on the occasion of my mother’s birthday. My dad decided the family should go see Duke Ellington and his orchestra at the Rainbow Grill in the Waldorf Astoria. When we entered the packed supper club, the band was wailing. With the colorful lighting, it all looked magical. And a magical moment it was. Without hesitation, Duke Ellington stopped his orchestra abruptly, went to the microphone and said “Ladies and gentlemen, the baddest left-hand in the history of our music (obviously alluding to Thelonious’ harmonic innovations) just came in — Thelonious Monk.” There was a huge roar, and I knew this was special stuff. This was Duke Ellington talking, the Duke — the greatest jazzman I knew.
Soon after that, in the summer of my nineteenth year on earth, it happened. It was 1969, the year of my enlightenment. I was still living with my parents, and practicing my drums seven or eight hours a day. I was dedicated, focused and broke.
Thelonious Monk performing with Art Blakey (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns/Getty)
When my dad was home from touring, he would lay his head on his headboard resting against a wall that was, maybe, eight inches thick, with me practicing right on the other side. From the day I started practicing, until I was twenty years old, he never said a word about my playing, but that’s another whole story.
I was in my own world. There were no listening restrictions in the Monk household, so I was listening to dad, Duke, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Supremes, and Frank Sinatra — everything, no limits. Then along came the music industry’s move from Hi-Fi to stereo. I wanted a stereo, and decided to build one myself. I went to Lafayette Electronics in downtown Manhattan and purchased parts to build a speaker, though I was not fully familiar with the needs of a stereo system, I purchased parts for only one speaker — a profoundly knuckle-headed move. However, on that hot summer day, I chose to build that one speaker, despite my technical mistake. Once it was completed, I needed to test it, but had a dilemma. It was big, 15 inches, plus a huge wooden cabinet. I wanted to go big. I was afraid to play a loud pop record, like my new Sly and the Family Stone album or something from a Motown group, but I wanted something I could turn up so I could hear this new speaker but not blow it up. So I decided on a quiet, smaller sounding group — a trio record by my father. I can clearly remember lying down with my ear to the speaker and pressing the button for the automatic changer to drop the record. It was a recording that featured Art Blakey on drums and the great bassist, Oscar Pettiford, filling out the trio. They were playing my father’s composition, “Work.” I had never heard it before. It is one of his most difficult improvisational vehicles. I could easily hear it, but it was so difficult and different that I was amazed. I was savvy enough to tell it was special, extremely special.
It was so special, I couldn’t stop playing the melody over and over for the next hour, and the melody was only about a minute long. I was stunned at the genius of his rhythm, his harmonics and his precision. It all came together for me that hot summer afternoon. Right then, I realized that the guy resting in the room next to me, and listening to my practicing, was, in fact, a timeless genius named Thelonious Monk, the man that changed the music — the man everyone had been talking about all my life. My dad was Thelonious Monk. And that was my name too. And it was humbling.
My life changed just like the music. He’d done it to me too. That fifty-year thing was clearly conservative, since I’m now 65, and I see the 300-year thing is truly possible, if Beethoven and Mozart are any indicators. I got scared, but I got proud, and have been so ever since.
I could have been born on a hilltop in another country with nothing, but instead, I was born to Thelonious and Nellie, and given a wonderful heritage. How lucky was I. God bless you daddy. I know exactly who you are, and I will always love you! Happy Birthday!
Thelonious Sphere Monk, III (T.S. Monk) is an internationally acclaimed jazz drummer, bandleader, vocalist and arts educator. The son and musical heir to his father, the legendary jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk. He is the co-founder and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and he also heads the Thelonious Monk Estate. Contact him at Thelonious.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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