Growing up the son of an artist of mythical status while making your way in the same field sets up daunting challenges. And yet T.S. Monk, whose father, Thelonious Monk, is a hallowed figure in the jazz pantheon, has managed to define his own identity while honoring and building on his legacy.
“Finding my own path was part of my DNA from Day 1,” the drummer, bandleader and educator says from his home in New Jersey.
“From the outside it might have looked like a real stretch, … but if you look at the way Thelonious approached every musician he interacted with, he was vehement about encouraging you to be whoever you are. So he told me early on: You have to play your music in your time. Don’t allow the world to get you hung out on my time.”
T.S. Monk and a 10-piece band with the Ernie Watts Quartet and singers Nnenna Freelon and Kevin Mahogany will revisit the music of pianist-composer Thelonious Monk and saxophonist-composer John Coltrane Friday night as part of the Jazz Roots series at Miami’s Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
Thelonious Sphere Monk III, 63, played in his father’s trio until the elder Monk’s retirement in 1975. (He died in 1982.) He went on to record eight albums, lead his own R&B bands, have a couple of dance hits and, in 1992, return to jazz with a still active, hard-driving sextet. In 1986, he realized a family dream by creating the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Washington, D.C.
On Friday night, he will draw from Monk on Monk (1997), his only album devoted to his father’s music, and from the old master’s two important large-ensemble recordings from concerts at Town Hall (1959) and Lincoln Center (1963). The set will most likely include “Monk’s family pieces” such as Little Rootie Tootie, dedicated to T.S.; Boo Boo’s Birthday, written for his daughter Barbara, and the exquisite Crepuscule with Nellie, dedicated to his wife.
Saxophonist Watts, who once described hearing Coltrane on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue as being “like someone put my hand into a light socket,” will explore Coltrane’s legacy. An exceptional and lyrical player, Watts played with Charlie Haden’s Quartet West, did stints with Cannonball Adderley and Pat Metheny, toured with The Rolling Stones, recorded with Marvin Gaye and Frank Zappa and had a 20-year run with Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show Band.
Even while setting Monk and Coltrane side by side, the Jazz Roots program also celebrates one of the most remarkable and consequential collaborations in jazz history.
Fired by Miles Davis and struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, Coltrane was at risk of becoming a 30-year-old has-been in 1957. He moved from Philadelphia to New York City, and soon began to visit Monk regularly.
“I was in the house when John Coltrane used to come every day, for months, and sit down with Thelonious and play just saxophone and piano,” T.S. Monk says. “And Thelonious would be schooling him on this tune and that, and encourage him to try things and telling him to [screw] the critics.”
Monk asked Coltrane to join his trio at the Five Spot, a small club in the East Village, for what became a six-month engagement. The sound of this quartet, documented in a few studio tracks and several live recordings, had a profound effect on their subsequent work.
“I know Thelonious is called the High Priest of Bebop, but to me he is also the father of modern jazz,” his son says. “Thelonious didn’t come up with a new alphabet, but with the same alphabet he came up with new words, new sentences — and that kicked the door wide open.”
The concert Friday will offer a rare perspective on Monk’s music, the unusual 10-piece group replicating the ensembles he led in the landmark Town Hall and Lincoln Center concerts.
“That was a very wise decision by [arranger-conductor] Hall Overton,” T.S. Monk says. “I think he and my father concluded that the combination of sounds they needed to really get the Monk sound was a little bit outside of the big band tradition of say, a Duke Ellington or a Count Basie.”
In its mix of brilliant, playful design, pungent harmonies and idiosyncratic rhythms, Monk’s music remains a source of endless fascination. Many of his compositions have become jazz standards, and, for T.S. Monk, the reason is simple.
“Although his tunes are of the highest order intellectually and difficult to play, you would leave the club humming them,” he says.
“By my mid teens I remember thinking Thelonious was like a pop writer of jazz. Everybody knows Round Midnight. Everybody knows Blue Monk or Rhythm-A-Ning. You know the melody. Thelonious Monk was the Stevie Wonder of jazz.”