“Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recaptured at will” ― Charles Baudelaire
Yesterday an interesting question came to mind: “What do Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong have in common. Anything?”. The reason behind this is quite simple. I’ve mentioned before that Louis Armstrong is my musical and personal hero. Everything begins and ends with him. Well, Thelonious Monk is a close second. He deserves (and will get) a separate post, but for now I wanted to explore something else. Why is it that both these artists hold such a special place in my heart? Is it just a coincidence or do they maybe have something in common. What intrigued me even further was that they are scarcely mentioned in the same discussions - apart from the fact that they were both incomparable geniuses, who influenced the generations to come. So I wanted to dig into this connection; if there is any. Just for the fun of it. And while I’m at it, write a post about it.
“There is immense power and careful logic in the music of Thelonious Sphere Monk. But you might have such a good time listening to it that you might not even notice. That, of course, would be your problem, not his. Monk was an architect of feeling. His tunes were slick, inhabitable little rooms that warmed the heart with their odd angles and bright colors. Somehow he knew exactly how to make you feel good—and I mean exactly, as if it were medicine, or gastronomy, or massage, or feng shui.” - Vijay Iyer on Thelonious Monk. Would apply just as well to Louis Armstrong
Whenever I consider two artist, I usually start thinking about their possible interactions. Did they know each other? What did they think of each other?
Did Louis and Thelonious know each other? Did they mention each other in interviews? I couldn’t find much. For example, you might have heard about the exchanges between Dizzy and Louis back in the day. Well, there wasn’t anything similar happening to heroes of this story. However, I do think they had mutual respect. Thelonious was very aware and respective of the music and musicians before him. After all, he learned to play the piano by performing church music and would develop his style in the company of the most famous stride pianists. It stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Louis Armstrong owned two records by Thelonious Monk. He is also quoted saying “Very personally, I don’t care for most bop, except maybe for Parker, some Miles Davis, some Thelonious Monk.”. Of course there were people who pegged Louis as hating ‘modern music’ and being stuck in his old ways. I think what is a lot closer to Louis Armstrong’s essence is succinctly put as “There is two kinds of music, the good, and the bad”. If it’s good, it’s good and it doesn’t matter if it’s modern or pre-historic.
And can you guess a direct connection that ties these two together? None other than Coleman Hawkins. Hawk played with Louis Armstrong in the Fletcher Henderson band in the 20s and was greatly influenced by him. Well, Thelonious Monk’s career started when he played with Coleman Hawkins, who would be his supporter and a huge influence on the pianist.
“When you’re swinging, swing some more.” - Thelonious Monk
"I say, play your own way. Don’t play what the public want — you play what you want and let the public pick up on what you doing — even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years." - Thelonious Monk
When I considered how they were treated by the general public, an unlucky common thread comes up. Monk and Armstrong both experienced the wrath of critics and were (perhaps as a result) often misunderstood by the public. They both experienced endless repeating stories of demeaning categorizations and simplifications.
Before Louis’ career took off there weren’t a lot of magazines and/or critics devoted to jazz, so it wasn’t uncommon to read about jazz being signed off as a joke or worse yet, an offense to music. Once they started talking about Louis they would throw him in the same basket and add a good measure of racism. Later in his career they became less racist but moved on to other things; they generally recognized him as a great artist (at that point it became impossible and quite frankly, stupid, for anyone to deny that), but would say that he sold out and was generally distasteful and offensive. They saw him as an used-to-be. Of course not every critic held this opinion but the ones that did, did enough damage for this made-up/twisted story to keep repeating. It took a long time (20-30 years after his passing) for this general view on Armstrong to change.
It’s funny how much Armstrong was ahead of his time. And that includes his whole career - even though the critics thought they had him all figured out in his later years, he would prove them wrong once again. Monk once said “I say, play your own way. Don’t play what the public want — you play what you want and let the public pick up on what you doing — even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years.”. I am surprised how often this holds true. Not just with these two.
So how about Monk? It took a long time for him to be recognized as a genius. Or even as a passable pianist! When he finally got the recognition he deserves, he was over 40. Before that his music was usually signed off as unlistenable and he was regarded as a subpar musician. More importantly the thing that the critics loved to talk about the most was that he was eccentric, tardy and unreliable. That was a gross oversimplification, but that image stuck with him for the rest of his life. I guess, it was just more interesting and easier for the interviewers to portray him like that, rather than actually seeing him for who he was. Those unflattering stories were hardly anything more than a gossip. If you want to find out more about how ignorant and unjustified those statements were, I recommend a great biography by Robin D.G. Kelley. Thelonious Monk was an introvert and had mental health issues that grew worse and worse. Robin D.G. Kelley clearly shows the line between the truth and this nonsense talk. And reading the stupid questions interviewers had prepared for Monk makes you question their sanity, not his. ‘Do you think piano has enough keys?’ I mean what did they expect to get from questions like that? He had witty responses or sometimes just didn’t respond. Of course this was seen as weird just because it has already been decided that he is weird.
Like Louis, later in his life he was being loved by numerous fans and would generally be accepted as one of the most influential musicians of his time. And unlike Louis, he was also loved by the critics (the same critics who had, years later, said he was unlistenable). Nevertheless just as Louis Armstrong, he was often criticized for performing a routine show.
What about their music? Personally, I think this is what connects them the most. When it comes to music, in a way, Thelonious Monk is like an introvert, more introspective version of Louis Armstrong. They may have different sounds due to a different era, but they hold the same qualities.
They were both masters of their instruments. Like other musical geniuses, they were able to make their instruments sound completely novel and unlike anything heard before or after them. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. They both devoted their whole lives and their whole beings to music. What came out of that life-long devotion was Music with a capital M. Exquisite, delightful and endlessly alluring music. Monk’s music was always juggling between two seemingly contradicting aspects. On one hand he had this assiduous, hard-working and intellectual approach to his music while on the other he always remained so joyful and playful; almost child-like. It takes something, perhaps a touch of genius or a profound understanding of life, to juggle and poise these two aspects. But Monk does it so naturally, so flawlessly, he makes it look easy. Now doesn’t all that sound a lot like Louis Armstrong? Listen to their rendition of Dinah. I think it illustrates this point perfectly.
Incidentally, I think Cecile is a master of this duality as well. It’s what I love about her.
Just look and listen to how he dances around on the stage and how he plays with the melody when he is singing. It’s pure joy. But when he puts that horn on his lips, he is possessed. He becomes a man on a mission.
This duality was also reflected by their stage demeanor. Monk danced. Louis told jokes and laughed. And when they started playing they left no doubt of their prowess.
“Stop playing all those weird notes (that bullshit), play the melody!” - Thelonious Monk
Another thing I find interesting is how they both loved a good melody and would insist in having their music melody-oriented. You can hear this clearly in Armstrong’s later years - if it was a melody he enjoyed, he loved nothing more than to play it without changing it. And just the same in Monk’s solos, where the melody was always right underneath the surface.
“Pat your foot and sing the melody in your head, when you play.” - Thelonious Monk
As they grew older they both slowly but surely gravitated towards a more mature style of playing. They wouldn’t play ten notes where one was needed. They played exactly what was needed. No more and no less. Perfect in every note and every pause. Even more importantly their music would become more soulful than ever. I already talked about this in my previous post, but it’s worth mentioning again. It’s mind-blowing how much emotion they were able to pack into a single song. More than that, how much intensity they could put in one tone or one chord. You can’t duplicate that.
“There is two kinds of music, the good, and the bad. I play the good kind.” - Louis Armstrong
Monk and Armstrong could not appear more different. Their music not the least so. But was that actually the case? I don’t think it was. We’re often so quick to categorize music and treat it as different beings. We seem to forget that it’s all Music. Maybe I am completely off with this post but I’d like to think they (and this applies to all of us as well) were more similar than they were different. Sure, there are things that separated them, but these things only give the illusion of disconnection. One was an extrovert and the other an introvert. But both incredibly persistent, determined and hard-working. What they have left us is a precious treasure that can never be exhausted.