18 | LAPHAM’S QUARTERLY
So did I feel uncharacteristically at ease at what I now look back upon as the
last stop on my pilgrim road to the hope of becoming a musician. A command
performance at the command of Thelonious Sphere Monk, in Monk’s tenement
apartment on West Sixty-Third Street, in the presence of his wife, Nellie, and
the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, longtime protectoress of Charlie
Parker and sister of the third Baron Rothschild.
Invitation to so august a concert stage calls for a word of further explanation. In the winter of 1964, I was a contract writer for The Saturday Evening Post, allowed by its editor, Otto Friedrich, to chase rainbows likely to prove
rewarding. I’d been listening to Monk live and recorded for ten years, knew he
had influenced musicians as dissimilar as Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, John
Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins, knew also he had suffered a siege of obscurity (time
in jail, trouble with money, shunned by nightclub owners who thought him too
sinister a shade of black) from which he had begun to reemerge into the limelight.
Lulu was back in town, and probably a good story, his use of dissonance being
taught in composition courses at the Juilliard School of Music. Friedrich agreed.
He was himself a musician of no small means or consequence—“The only way
to understand a Mozart concerto thoroughly is to sit down at the piano and play
it, which I do with his no. 27, humbly, every six
months or so”—and he suggested I take as much
time as necessary to come up with something
that didn’t read like a program note in DownBeat.
Monk at the time was appearing at the
Five Spot Café in the East Village, his presence
pictured in the trade press as “the weird and
enigmatic genius of modern jazz” surfacing like
the Loch Ness monster from the sloughs of
despond, “the perfect hipster,” fond of wearing an
At the Five Spot, I introduced myself as a writer come to write about his
music, said I was content to hang around and listen until it occurred to Monk to
talk; it was three weeks before he stopped by the table to announce his opinion
of critics. “That’s a drag picture they’re paintin’ of me, man. A lot of people still
think I’m nuts or somethin’...but I dig it, man; I can feel the draft.”
An imposing figure elegantly dressed in a sharkskin suit, Monk carried
himself with the dignity of a man who knows his own mind and doesn’t
countenance fools. He wore a goatee, a purple shirt, a dockworker’s cap, and a
diamond ring on the little finger of his right hand. I asked him if it was true he
never left home without a hundred-dollar bill stuffed into the black silk sock on
his left foot. He laughed, easily and good-naturedly. “Right foot,” he said, “you
never know when you’re gonna run into a bargain.”
I hung around for the rest of the winter, never knowing if or when Monk
might entertain questions. Most nights I arrived around midnight after com-
Everything is music for the born musician.
Everything that vibrates, stirs, and palpitates,
sunlit summer days, nights when the wind
whistles, the light that flows, the twinkling of
stars, storms, birdsong, the buzzing of insects,
the stirring of trees.
—Romain Rolland, 1904