New Monastery: Monk and the Jazz Avant-Garde

Article excerpt

The musician who once terrified us all no longer seems to disturb a soul. He has been tamed, classified, and given his niche in that eclectic Museum of Great Jazzmen which admits such a variety of species, from Fats Domino to Stan Kenton.

--Andre Hodeir on Thelonious Monk, circa 1959

A 1972 press release announcing the reissue of Thelonious Monk's Prestige recordings included the following observation:

   [I]n the early Sixties, with the emergence of "avant-garde" jazz and the
   appearance of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor, Monk's music
   no longer seemed quite so strange. He was finally able to whittle away at
   the "Mad Monk" tags that had been laid upon him by smug critics and
   listeners who had neither the equipment nor the desire to comprehend. There
   was even the introduction to polite society in the form of a Time magazine
   cover story in 1964, and Monk finally and without compromise began to
   receive the widespread attention and adequate financial renumeration that
   was his due. ("Thelonious Monk" 1972)

Although hyperbole is unavoidable in any press release, there is a kind of truth here. At the very moment that Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, and others were bringing about a revolution in "modern jazz," Monk's career finally began to soar. After enduring almost two decades of confused and often vicious criticisms from writers and musicians alike, by the early 1960s, Juilliard students were studying his compositions, Martin Williams (1963; 1964) had insisted that he was a "major composer," and French critic Andre Hodeir (1986, 164) had hailed him as the first jazz artist to have "a feeling for specifically modern esthetic values" (see also Kotlowitz 1961; Lapham 1964). By 1961, Monk had established a more-or-less permanent quartet consisting of Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone, John Ore (later Larry Gales) on bass, and Frankie Dunlop (later Ben Riley) on drums. He performed with his own big band at Town Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Monterey Jazz Festival, and the quartet toured Europe in 1961 and Japan in 1964. He left the Riverside label for a more financially lucrative contract with Columbia Records in 1962, and by the mid-1960s, his quartet reportedly earned nearly $2,000 a week for a gig (see de Wilde 1997, 171-178; Gourse 1997, 153-211; Ponzio and Postif 1995, 201-267; Williams 1963; Williams 1964).

The mainstreaming of Monk and the emergence of the jazz avant-garde--or what has been called "free jazz" or the "New Thing"--was not merely coincidental. In several respects, both musically and politically, these developments were interdependent if not mutually constitutive. The emergence of the jazz avant-garde during the early 1960s did indeed change the field of reception for Monk as well as for other musician/composers (e.g., Charles Mingus) who only a decade before were considered too "far out" and experimental. However, the shifting critical response to Monk's music vis-a-vis the avant-garde partly reflected the changing political landscape--one in which black nationalism, Third World solidarity, and even the more localized struggles against racism and exploitation in the music industry challenged Cold War liberalism. In this war of words, conservative and some liberal critics embraced Monk as a foil against the free jazz rebellion, while defenders of the avant-garde often sought to claim Monk as one of their own. Given Monk's complicated, often iconoclastic relationship to the history of modern jazz, it should not be surprising that all of these constituencies could legitimately lay claim to him. Whereas Monk, like most musicians of his generation, expressed disinterest if not outright hositility to free jazz, artists identified with the avant-garde found his music to be a major source of ideas and inspiration. Indeed, as I demonstrate below, no matter how much Monk tried to distance himself from these new developments, he helped give birth to the jazz avant-garde. …