Growing Up Monk

T.S. Monk Jr. on his father, his jazz family and the Monk Institute at 25

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T.S. Monk at home

(Photo: Michael Weintrob)

So what happened was the Japanese came up with a very, very good marketing philosophy. What they would do is when you had all these jazz musicians come in, when you got off the plane in Tokyo, they’d put a Seiko watch on your wrist. They’d put a Sony miniature TV in your hand. And they’d hang a Nikon camera around your neck. So, I go to the airport and here comes Thelonious and Dizzy and these cats. And Dizzy had this Nikon camera—this was a $1,000 camera in 1962–’63. Dizzy looked at me. I’m saying, “Hi, Dad. Hi, Dizzy.” Hi to everybody. He looks at me and says, “Monk, the kid like cameras?” He just took it off his neck and put it around my neck—a $1,000 camera. And I’ve been into photography ever since.

I WAS ALLOWED to run around like a little maniac and be a kid. I remember one night, I don’t even know where we were, but Art was there and Max was there and Sonny and a whole lot of cats. I think they might have come down to hear Thelonious. And I’m running around the room doing my little thing. And I remember Thelonious saying, “Hey, Coltrane.” And Coltrane said, “What, Monk?” And Thelonious said, “You see? That’s my son there. You know he’s automatically hip.” [laughs] Now, myself, I was embarrassed. I didn’t know what this was about. First of all, how am I automatically hip?

WHAT I REALIZED years later was the major self-esteem building that he was doing on me. I didn’t know it at the time because it seemed so off-the-wall. But he was telling me, “You are my son. And I’m very hip. And you are automatically hip because you are my son. And John Coltrane, dig him.”

DESPITE WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE READ about his aloofness, Thelonious was probably the most accessible of all the giants in jazz that we have ever had. Thelonious insisted on our address and telephone number being in the phone book his entire life. He didn’t want no unlisted number. Of course he had me and my sister and my mother to answer the phone for him. So, he never had to deal with the telephone himself. But he was very, very regular in a lot of ways.

ONE OF THE REASONS that I believe I was able to garner support during the first years for the Monk Institute was that I had an actual personal relationship with those guys—with Clark Terry, with Jimmy Heath, with Max Roach, with Billy Taylor. I knew them personally, so I was able to go to them personally and say, “Hey, I’m going to start this organization called the Monk Institute of Jazz. Would you help me out?” I don’t think if Thelonious didn’t have me on his knee, hanging around all the time, I would have been able to do it, or it wouldn’t have been as easy, because I wouldn’t have those personal relationships. You know what was amazing? They all bought my father’s rap. I was automatically hip. [laughs] So, when I went to them, there was no resistance at all. They all said, “This is Monk’s son. He’s automatically hip. We’re ready to get down. We’re ready to go.” It made it a lot of fun.

AT 15, I WAS GETTING home from school, and I just broke down. I said, “Dad, I think I want to play the drums. I think I really want to play the drums.” And he said, “Oh, really?” And this is no lie. It was one of the few times I actually saw my father pick up the phone and call somebody. He said, “Art, look, Toot needs some drums.” Like three days later, I had a set of drums from Art Blakey. He put the phone down from Art. He picked up the phone again. And he dialed a number. He said, “Max Roach.” He always called him “Max Roach.” He never called him “Max.” He said, “Max Roach, you are the greatest drummer in the world, and the kid wants to play the drums. I’m sending him to your house.” [laughs] So, he sent me to Max. And then, he didn’t say one word. That’s at 15. At 19, I discover who he is, and he still hasn’t said a damned word to me about what I’m playing!

The next year, when I was 20, he just comes sauntering through the house and asks, “Are you ready to play?” And two days later, I was on the bandstand. I was in his band. It went just like that.

I JUST STARTED PLAYING with the band, but I’d known from observing him that he wouldn’t say anything. I never heard him say two good words about Charlie Rouse, either. So, I didn’t feel bad. Thelonious was from that generation that, you know, you were supposed to be playing all that hip stuff. There was something to say if you weren’t, but if you were, there really wasn’t anything to say because that’s what we do.

ONE NIGHT, we were playing at the Village Vanguard. The line was around the block. The show was packed. We hit it. Everybody went crazy, standing ovations. And during that performance I did something. I turned the beat around. Now, everybody knows that jazz is about recovery. It’s all about the recovery. If you recover correctly, then no mistake took place. So, I recovered my butt off, right? So, I’m feeling groovy. I’m standing in the kitchen. I’m signing autographs. I’m grinning.

And I felt this presence ease up on me. So, Thelonious eases up next to me and leans down, while I’m signing autographs, and he says, “Stop f’ing up the music, man.” I mean, for real. He didn’t say “f’ing”—it was the full monty. And I was stunned. The abject lesson was not that I made a mistake; the abject lesson was in accountability. Because, despite the applause, despite the accolades, I didn’t come up to the bandstand and say, “Hey guys, I’m sorry I jammed us up.” I acted like it never happened. I was completely awash in all this glorification.

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