One of my favorite Thelonious Monk sessions took place on May 30, 1952, his last for Blue Note Records. There's a slippery urgency to the pianist's playing on this date, and the sidemen are both bluesy and martini dry. Joining Monk were Kenny Dorham (trumpet), Lou Donaldson (alto sax), Lucky Thompson (tenor sax), Nelson Boyd (bass) and Max Roach (drums). For the time, the music was beyond revolutionary and made when Monk was particularly exuberant and creatively subversive. [Photo of Thelonious Monk by William P. Gottlieb]
The May 1952 session came after a tough period for Monk. Back in August 1951, Monk had been visiting with his mother when pianist Bud Powell turned up with a man and a woman Monk didn't know. The quartet went out to the woman's car, to avoid disturbing Monk's mother. Soon, two narcotics officers showed up, and Powell flipped a glassine envelope that landed at Monk's feet.
The car's inhabitants were arrested. Powell went to a psychiatric ward, the woman was released and the man was held over since he was on bail at the time for a similar crime. Monk faced the charges solo, refusing to dime on Powell, and spent 60 days in New York's Riker's Island.
"Nellie [Monk's wife] continued to work every day while Monk stayed home with Toot [their child], keeping house, writing music, and working with the parade of musicians who would drop by the apartment.
" 'When he wasn't working regularly,' Nellie explained, 'he'd be working at home, writing and rehearsing bands that didn't have the prospects of a dog... In the un-years, as I call them, as far as he was concerned, he felt just as confident as he does now that what he was doing musically could appeal to other people if they only took the opportunity to listen.' "
In May 1952, Blue Note's Alfred Lion hired Monk to record The Genius of Modern Music Vol. 2. By then, bebop had settled into a commercial groove, a self-searching period, if you will. Charlie Parker was recording American songbook classics for Norman Granz, Dizzy Gillespie was in Paris making records with strings, James Moody was back in New York recording with bop vocalist Babs Gonzales and Miles Davis was experimenting with different configurations of his All Stars.
In addition, King Pleasure was riding high with a vocalese version of Moody's I'm in the Mood for Love. Ironically, it would be the runaway success of Pleasure's hit that provided Prestige owner Bob Weinstock with sufficient cash to sign Monk and two other new musicians to his label soon after Monk's May recording date for Blue Note.
What does all of this mean? For Monk in May 1952, the artistic field was wide open, and he easily dominated. As you'll hear, Monk demonstrates handily on this date that he was the most creative force on the scene, twisting and turning music the way a blacksmith might fashion hot horseshoes.
On the last Sunday in May, the proto-hardbop sextet met at WOR Studios and recorded six sides—four of which were new compositions. Skippy was based on the chord changes to Tea for Two and was named after Nellie's sister. Hornin' In was a minor medium-tempo walker with an impossible melody line, and Sixteen was named for the song's 16-bar AABA structure. [Photo of Thelonious Monk by William P. Gottlieb]
Let's Cool One was named for a phrase favored by Harlem disc jockey and entertainer Ralph Cooper. Carolina Moon and I'll Follow You (without horns) also were recorded that day.
Just listening to Hornin' In makes hairs stand on end as you realize how impossibly difficult the piece must have been to play. Seven takes were needed, and on one flawless attempt (the fifth), the ruinous error is made by bassist Boyd. Thrown by the rugged melody, he plays two additional notes alone at the end.
When Boyd makes this error, you sense his sheepishness, as though he stepped off a cliff in a cartoon, pausing mid-air to look down and gulp before dropping. One can only assume the hell that was raised when they had to re-record that song again after such a magnificent execution.
Monk's music is enveloping. Many people praise the pianist but in truth resist putting on his albums, largely because of the emotional taxation. His piano work refuses to be background music and always commands your attention. But once Monk is on, I get into the swing of things and find it hard to switch off of him. Monk stimulates many different parts of my brain that seem reserved only for him. [Photo of Thelonious Monk by William P. Gottlieb]
On May 30, 1952, Monk was captured feeling free—in more ways than one.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Thelonious Monk: Genius of Modern Music Vol. 2 (Blue Note) at iTunes or here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Hornin' In, the fifth take, with Boyd's error at the end. Also in the beginning, is it me or does Monk's intro sounds a lot like the basis for Oscar Peterson's intro to Something's Coming from West Side Story? At any rate, listen how Monk's melody line sounds like shattered glass. Fascinating stuff...