Thelonius Monk movie

October 13, 2007


Hats off to Clint Eastwood’s brave production, STRAIGHT NO CHASER(1988), about jazz musician Thelonius Monk. After watching this, I realize that Thelonius is as important as Schoenberg or Webern in terms of modernist composers.


It’s just he always has a rhythm section going so classical snobs can never truly accept him as an equal to any university trained classical composer. (Maybe that’s what Webern needs: a rhythm section. Hell, we could do disco Webern and it just might wake up sales. We could sell Webern T-shirts just like they did when Lenny went through his Mahler phase. It would be the style to be severe looking. Hermann Hesse is perfect. I digress….)


Thelonius was brilliant. But he seemed to have a severe condition that this documentary dared not speak of. Pardon me for offering an off the cuff diagnosis: I can’t help but think that Monk was severely autistic. I’m not a medical doctor or psychiatrist, I’ve read no other books on him, but I have been doing some study for doing the music for Graham Streeter’s new film that deals with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. I’ve learned that there is a huge spectrum. We learn in this movie from Thelonious Jr. that his father once paced for 4 days straight and then collapsed from exhaustion. In the movie we seem him pace many times, seeming to not be able to break his endless loops. While he does it he seems happy; grunting, chuckling, mumbling, singing… I never knew. Do we really need to know about composers lives? Well, I think so, but then I’m a composer.

Here is a 10 minute clip from the movie. You’ll see him turn in circles during the bass solo. The audience begins to laugh. I guess they didn’t understand. You hear important information from his son, Thelonius Jr here.

Monk usually insisted that the first take was the one true take. One sees in his aesthetic that there is no such thing as a boo boo, except for his song “Boo Boo’s Birthday.”

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Brad Wood October 13, 2007 at 11:11 pm

Not to take away from adoration of Monk, but I see I mentioned the original Michalski-Schauer “Webern’s Greatest Hits” in this blog before (June 14, 2007). It’s a K-TEL Records parody, done quite exquisitely, including brief snatches of actual performances (“You’ll get Five Songs, Opus 4” [excerpt] etc.). “Put a little Klangfarben in your life…”

At the end there is indeed some Webern with a disco beat background.

Unfortunately what was done as a tape piece for a few friends back in less litigious times, led to a quarrel when Schauer wanted to release the thing and Michalski demurred out of copyright violation concerns. I gather that John S. went ahead and remade it. But I cherish my copy of the original.

PK October 14, 2007 at 11:01 am

Monk is such a joy, most particularly (for me) his original compositions. Still, the carefully weighed substitutions he uses in Just a Gigalo, while maintaining such an anchor in the original melody, is a lesson on taste. It was Ran Blake at NEC, who really stuck my nose in Monk, and from decades later I can see how Ran’s playing was so completely informed with the same careful intentionality.

Hearing your joy in this music, while reflecting that you are a chair at a major university, makes my heart sing for those lucky enough to be entering your school. That same, truly eclectic, nature was, perhaps, what made Gunther Schuller so special at NEC.

Roger Bourland October 14, 2007 at 11:24 am

Brad: I’ve got all these Apple Loops at my disposal that would be VERY easy to put with ol’ Tony’s ditties.

PK: as Gunther has been a hero of mine for a long time, I’ll take that as a compliment!

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