Friday, October 13, 2017

Thelonious Monk centennial

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:

edit: Thanks to lightintoashes for reminding me that Monk did play the Carousel Ballroom in San Francisco on May 3-5, 1968, right in the middle of the short period that the venue was being managed collectively by the Dead and the Jefferson Airplane (I think Ron Rakow was doing the actual managing?).  Columbia Records and Monk’s management were looking to boost Monk’s low sales by courting the white rock market (his then-current album Underground was being heavily marketed accordingly), so Monk was booked to play a hip rock venue in addition to his usual Bay Area club and festival appearances.  Robin D.G. Kelley, author of the definitive Monk bio, has a good piece about this failed crossover bid here.  I wonder why Monk didn’t play the Fillmore for Bill Graham instead — maybe it was too last minute, maybe Monk didn’t want to be an opening act, maybe the Carousel paid better, who knows?  It’s not much of a musical connection, since the Dead were in New York and couldn’t even see Monk play (though lightintoashes points out that Bear did tape the Monk shows), but it’s worth noting.  Maybe someone from the band may fondly remember that their short-lived venture produced this unique Monk gig.

by Rick Shubb, with some info at his website


  1. The Dead's rhythms are distinctive and part of what makes them compelling. But you're right, that part of the music is little discussed - actually I can't recall any discussion on Dead rhythms offhand. It's a difficult subject for non-musicologists to put into words, though. And plenty of nay-sayers have objected that the Dead had no rhythm! (Admittedly, Garcia did once complain to the drummers that playing with them was like playing with a popcorn machine.)

    A slight Monk/Dead connection: Monk played the Carousel Ballroom, headlining one weekend in May 1968. I wonder whose idea it was to book him? (Monk liked Dr. John, who opened for him.) The Dead were on the east coast at the time, but Owsley recorded his shows.

    Slight Garcia connection: Monk played an eccentric solo on the Miles Davis version of 'Bags' Groove,' which Garcia & Grisman later covered.

  2. Agreed, more should be said about the Dead’s rhythmic concept — it seems like a gimme for some of the more academic/musicological axis of Dead scholarship, but maybe someday. I didn’t know about Garcia’s popcorn machine complaint, though! Where’s that one from?

    And thanks for the reminder about the Carousel shows. I hadn’t thought of that as a connection, but you’re right and I added to the post accordingly. Now I’m hung up on how Monk landed at the Carousel — either his management was *really* hip and opted for the more “underground” venue (which I kind of doubt), or there was some logistical reason that the Fillmore wasn’t feasible. I’ll bet Bill Graham was fuming about losing that one.

    1. Bob Weir remembered Garcia's drummer complaint:

      I'm not sure who handled booking for the Carousel shows. Since the Dead-run Carousel lasted less than four months, most of the bands that played there were local groups - not many big out-of-town names played there. But it's an interesting selection: John Lee Hooker, Erma Franklin, Johnny Cash, Thelonious Monk, and Booker T & the MGs.
      And, as opening acts, Tim Buckley, Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry, and the Clara Ward Singers.