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Friday, October 23, 2009


thelonious monk

TarBaby is with me this evening on the desk sitting between my arms listening to Thelonious Monk and Charlie Rouse play at the IT Club in Los Angeles, Oct 31 & Nov 1, 1964. It must have been a week or weeks before that I had the great good fortune to see Monk live at a place called the Bohemian Caverns. It was in the time when bohemian meant hipster, somebody whose entire identity is involved in being cool. Bohemian meant something quite different in the middle of the 19th Century, more like a nonconformist intellectual. So Bohemian Caverns meant a totally cool place where the coolest music was going on.

I have to say, when it comes to cool, with Thelonious Monk about 10 feet from me sitting at his piano like Mr Cool on ice, I felt in the presence of the ultimate in cool. Monk emerged through a doorway on the right, walking very short steps, very slowly, creeping along with all attention in the place on the man. Dressed in a black suit, black hat and black shoes, a step of no more than a foot's length at a time, he crept in slow motion to the piano, stone faced, eyes straight ahead. He took his time lowering himself to the stool, adjusting it, raising his hands to the keys, slowly, slowly.

The first notes of Blue Monk in that sound that is only Thelonious Monk. The band came in with good jazz drum, bass and Charlie Rouse. It didn't feel quite like I'd died and gone to heaven, but it certainly was the coolest moment of my theretofore severely boring life. I couldn't get over Monk's presence, just being in the same space with Monk. I kind of held Monk and John Coltrane up the highest, thought nothing could be better, but Charlie Rouse was just right. I found I preferred Rouse with Monk than Coltrane, but probably because it was fresh and I'd never heard it before, when I'd heard Coltrane a thousand times, not that that gets tiresome, because it doesn't.

I was in the Navy at the time in radio school on the base at Norfolk. Both Navy and Marines were in the class. One of my marine friends liked jazz as much as I did. He found out Monk was playing in DC at this place the Bohemian Caverns on a Saturday night. We took a bus from Norfolk to DC, which was beyond the range we were allowed to go on a weekend, but it was one of them only-if-you-get-caught deals. We both needed to see Monk with him that close to where we were. At the DC bus terminal we bought a map and found where Bohemian Caverns was.

It was quite a ways, but we had plenty of time and we walked. It was deep in a black section of DC, but neither of us was racist and both in our uniforms. We felt no fear and there were no threats. It was in the Civil Rights time and both of us were sympathetic and felt comfortable. Everybody in the club was black but us, but they all had a welcoming attitude. It was a tense time racially. We didn't hoop and holler slinging beer around like the rest of the guys at the barracks did. We were the only ones in the barracks who could have tolerated the music we were listening to. No, there was the black Sgt in charge of the barracks. We told him in advance we were crossing the line to see Monk. He believed that a worthy cause, and he had duty or he'd have gone with us.

On the ship several months later I had a black friend who loved jazz, played vibes and piano on the order of Ahmad Jamal. When we'd leave the ship in various ports in the Mediterranean, he knew where the jazz clubs were. He'd get to talking with the band during intermission, jazz musicians, like Muslims, friends as soon as they meet. His name was Ameen Nuraldeen, Muslim, grew up in Chicago as Bill Sleets. One of the coolest things he ever did was go to Billie Holiday's funeral. He told me when he was in his teens he walked by a place where Muddy Waters was playing and remembers all his life hearing the Muddy Waters band inside this club he walked by too young to get in. The bands in the clubs we'd be visiting in Spain, Italy, Greece always invited him to play. He would only play two tunes and no more, unless the piano player himself asked him to, not wanting to show up or take over the piano player's show.
I'm remembering a time Ameen and I went to Rome together when the ship was in port close by. We passed a shop with several Muslim men sitting inside talking. He wanted to go in and meet them. They received him as a brother right off, hugs, greetings in Allah. He introduced me as his friend who was not Muslim, but believe their path is real too. They received me as they did him. Ameen knew Arabic, and they sat and talked at length. I didn't understand any of it, though he'd tell me what they were talking about from time to time. He'd been to Mecca and they had too.
Not a whole lot of years ago I found Ameen and visited him for a week in Philadelphia where he was living then. I went to mosque with him and was received in wide open friendship by the Muslims there. We went to the Philadelphia museum one day, looking around in an exhibit of some African things. Ameen spoke to the very black guard, asking something about this structure we were looking at. In short order they both found out the other was Muslim, the one working in the museum as a guard from Ghana, and were friends immediately. Ameen spoke with another black guard another time who was also Muslim from Africa living in Philadelphia. Through Ameen I saw Islam is truly a religion of peace.
I'm not able to credit the photographer of the Monk photo above. Found it in google, public domain. Evidently Monk had a bad case of depression. I'm glad they didn't have prozac in his time. We'd have never known the sound he gave us.

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