|Monk, 1959, by W. Eugene Smith|
I'm a few days late (no surprise), but it does seem appropriate that I'm posting on Friday the 13th.
I was a little disappointed that global media wasn't exploding with accolades and tributes for Thelonious Monk's 100th birthday on October 10 (Google's doodle for the day, if that's any indication, was for Fridtjof Nansen), so I'm doing my part in my tiny, barely-functional corner of the internet to salute one of the Giants of 20th century American music. The influence of jazz on the Dead owes far more to the John Coltrane lineage, which held to a very different set of priorities than Monk's (despite the fact that he spent a few very important months playing in Monk's band), and while I would hope that some or all of the Dead were lovers of Monk's music, I don't know of any direct connections that exist.
My own exposure to Monk came young, courtesy of my father's record collection. His music didn't evoke the same states of heightened emotion inspired by Coltrane, Miles, and Mingus that appealed so much to me as an adolescent, and it took me a while to work out what was so appealing about it. I am loathe to repeat all of the tired "ugly beauty" cliches about Monk, but there was certainly an element of that. It wasn't music that I could immediately put my finger on, with its off-kilter rhythms and abrupt melodic about-faces that sounded both slick and archaic at the same time. It didn't have much in the way of dynamic variety, but I came to really like how it ambled along, seemingly unconcerned with whatever else it could have sounded like. The "eccentricities" of it -- really, the whole unique architecture of rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic elements -- always informed rather than distracted from every aspect of Monk's music. Sui generis in the most literal and very best sense of the term.
In that sense, I suppose, maybe the Grateful Dead are kindred spirits. I have been in a stage of not listening to much Dead or Garcia, but whenever I come back to their music, I'm struck by the ways that it contrasts with anything else I listen to. The Dead's unique rhythm is, I think, the standout characteristic of their music that goes the least discussed, and it's maybe the most immediate thing that separates them as a band from their contemporaries or followers -- you can imitate Garcia's style, but no one's come close to really imitating the Dead as a unit. They were a rock band, of course, and so they played with the dynamics and emotional range befitting a rock band, but there was always a kind of clunky element to their rhythm. I don't mean clunky in a negative way, although I do think it's something that stands out prominently to people who don't like the Dead -- my wife, who prefers the JGB, once commented that the Dead sound like one guitar player and a bunch of drummers, and I've heard the joke more than once that the Mickey and Billy sound like sneakers in a dryer. Garcia was always the most rhythmically centered of the band -- Phil and Bob, on the other hand, had some real clunk. I think that the band's change from the rhythmic and sonic density of the "primal Dead" era to the more stripped-down sound of the early 70's made more room for Bob and Phil to develop their own particular kinds of of clunk. Mickey's return in 1975 served to clunk up the sound even more -- again, something that many deadheads who strongly prefer 1971-74 can't always get down with. None of this is meant to imply that the Dead didn't groove or swing: they most certainly did, but what reliably makes them recognizably the Dead is that there are always rhythmic hiccups and bumps jutting out at odd angles, that sense of something a little chaotic always churning down in the engine room.
In a direct musical sense, there's nothing particularly Monk-ish about it (and, going back to Coltrane, even Bob's clunk comes partially from McCoy Tyner). I think it's interesting, however, that both Monk and the Dead were defined in part by their unique approaches to rhythm in their respective musical genres -- both were iconic figures in those genres and both are still, I would argue, relatively misunderstood given how famous their music is. So many of Monk's songs are deeply embedded in the common repertoire of jazz, but much about his music remains misunderstood and misrepresented. So too with the Dead, whose music contains dimensions that are misunderstood (or not engaged with?) by so many who claim their influence. Both carved out paths through the landscape of American music, the kind that makes music better even for those who aren't fans of their music. So in that sense, Monk and the Dead maybe aren't as far apart as you might think.
Then again, maybe I'm just having fun with this thought exercise. But that's no reason not to go and listen to some Monk. If you didn't get to it this week, that's cool: you have all of this centennial year to catch up.
bonus: one of my favorite jazz writers, the pianist Ethan Iverson, posted an unbelievably thorough overview of pretty much all thinks Monk: the recordings, the tunes, the critical writings, major tributes, and more. Any Monk fan who wants to dig deeper couldn't ask for a better roadmap than this: