Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Monk Meets Sncc

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Monk Meets Sncc

Article excerpt

Thelonious Monk--the enigma, the man who could compose with the radio blaring, wore unusual hats, danced around onstage, had periods of acute disconnectedness, and showed particular gifts in mathematics as a high school student--has long been a potent symbol of the jazz musician as artist. Monk's reluctance to verbalize--to interviewers, musicians seeking instruction, and even friends and family members--provides further evidence that music was his true language. Monk spoke the unspeakable through music and took the listener to "another level" through his utterly original compositions and improvisation.(1)

By adopting and cultivating this quintessentially romantic concept of art, bebop musicians in the 1940s demanded that their music be taken seriously. The trappings of art brought dignity and prestige to African-American musicians struggling to overturn the legacy of minstrelsy and its demands for smiling buffoonery. In the context of a racially segregated society, the demand by black musicians of the 1940s to be acknowledged as artists was a rebellious political act.(2)

Yet the notion of absolute music to which the romantic aesthetic subscribed held that true art was above politics. Consequently, musicians of the 1940s and 1950s found themselves in the ironic position of actively cultivating the image of the apolitical artist in order to assert the underlying political challenge posed by the obvious excellence of African-American music. This stance was particularly attractive to white intellectuals, bohemians, and progressives who could find common cause with African-American musicians in art. As the Civil Rights movement became a dominating presence in the public consciousness, however, particularly after the year-long Montgomery bus boycott (1955--56), the African-American community increasingly expected black musicians, entertainers, and celebrities to do their part in the struggle. In the midst of the Montgomery boycott, for example, Nat "King" Cole was beaten by whites while performing in Birmingham with a racially mixed band. Instead of earning the support of the African-American press, he was roundly denounced for having agreed to an engagement in a segregated theater. If the ordinary people of Montgomery could walk in protest day after day, they argued, the least someone like Nat "King" Cole could do was to refuse to play for segregated audiences. The idea of art divorced from politics, in other words, was placed under scrutiny by the burgeoning Civil Rights movement ("A King Is Uncrowned" 1956; "Cole Leaves Us" 1956).(3)

Viewed against the backdrop of bebop's militancy and the battle waged for racial equality in the 1950s and 1960s, Monk's image has been decidedly apolitical. Unlike his contemporaries Max Roach and Charles Mingus, he did not speak out on politics through his words or music. In a well-known interview with Valerie Wilmer (1965, 22), Monk emphasized that he was not particularly interested in politics.

   I hardly know anything about it.... I never was interested in those
   Muslims. If you want to know, you should ask Art Blakey. I didn't have to
   change my name--it's always been weird enough! I haven't done one of those
   "freedom" suites, and I don't intend to. I mean, I don't see the point. I'm
   not thinking that race thing now; it's not on my mind. Everybody's trying
   to get me to think it, though, but it doesn't bother me. It only bugs the
   people who're trying to get me to think it.

In 1958, Monk emphatically denied a social subtext for his music: "My music is not a social comment on discrimination or poverty or the like. I would have written the same way even if I had not been a Negro" (quoted in Brown 1958, 45).(4)

SNCC's "Salute to Southern Students"

On February 1, 1963, Thelonious Monk nevertheless performed at a gala fund-raising concert at Carnegie Hall for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). …

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