I would love to be able to see the mental images conjured up in readers’ heads by the title of today’s post. Was I really spanked by a Monk? Yes, by Thelonious Monk to be precise.
Monk was one of the first jazz artist I heard as a kid and is regarded by many to be one of the early geniuses of modern jazz. The incident I am about to relay came to mind several times while reading Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Here is the story of my intimate encounter with Monk’s creativity.
Soon after my wife and I moved to Philadelphia in 1967, Thelonius and his band played at “The Showboat” on Lombard St. for three straight nights. We attended all three nights and became friendly with Charlie Rouse, Monk’s sax player and the other band members. Over the course of three nights, we also spent time drinking with Baroness Nica Von Koenighswarter, who was friend, patron and caretaker to both Charlie Parker and Monk.
The stage in the Showboat was behind the bar and behind the bar stools, separated by a narrow walkway, were stadium-like seats fitted with tables. To get to the stage, musicians enter the club like any customer, and climb a short flight of stairs at one end of the bar. For all three nights we sat at the bar with the Baroness and other avid Monk fans.
Baroness “Nica” and Monk
The first night of the series, Monk arrived about an hour late, long after his band had gone up on stage ready to play. When Thelonius finally entered the club, he carried a long-handled shoe horn from his hotel. As he stepped through the door, he immediately tucked the shoe horn under his arm, like a riding crop or swagger stick, and began marching around the club. For another 30 minutes he strutted around with the shoe horn – back and forth along the bar, and up and down the bleachers- like a general in the Prussian army. At first it was entertaining but as the club owner got more and more irradiated, the audience began to grow impatient as well. All the while, his band watched their leader from the stage with their instruments ready.
Eventually, after much pleading from Rouse, the Baroness and the owner, Monk went to the stage and started playing the first tune. He placed the shoehorn on the music stand of the piano and began playing as if nothing unusual had happened. However, when it came time for his solo, Monk stood up, grabbed the shoehorn and used it to peck out his solo, one key at a time.
If you know Monks music, you can imagine that the solo did not really sound that unusual as he sometimes played one-fingered solos. After, his solo was finished, instead of sitting back down, he backed up a bit, knocking over the piano bench. He then moved away from the piano, doing his little “Monk dance” across the stage (see short video clip below).
That night I was sitting near the end of the bar, close to the steps going to the stage. Fueled by the many cocktails consumed during the long wait, I charged up the stairs with the intention of picking up the toppled piano bench, while Monk did his dance. As soon as I leaned over to pick it up, I felt a sharp sting of the shoe horn across my rear end. Much to the delight of the audience, I had been touched by genius. As would be expected from Thelonious Monk, the Melodious Thunk of the spank fit right into the tune they were playing.
The next night, in talking with the band members, it was revealed that Monk had been high on “speed” and that , after the gig, he had been remorsefully “crying like a baby”, according to Rouse. I’ve thought a lot about that night since then, wondering exactly what we had witnessed. Was it: Drug abuse? Monk’s creative genius? Showmanship? Psychological disorder?
I will take a stab at my interpretation in the next blog. To get to the bottom of this(excuse me-I couldn’t resist), I’ll be going back to Lehrer’s Imagination: How Creativity Works for some help. In the meantime, let me hear your interpretations, theories, reactions and stories.