All Saints: Thelonious Monk
With little time to waste, my friend Christian sat at the piano and played like someone discovering electricity.
The firstborn of my family, I gravitated toward functional older brothers. Slightly more mature friends in high school music and theater, friends like Christian, shaped my sensibilities, my very definition of the possible.
So when Christian played a few dozen bars of strange staccato before choir practice, I leaned in and said my “Amen” with a question mark rather than an exclamation point. Reading my mind, he offered a minute history of jazz piano, culminating in a name as curious as the music he just rendered: Thelonious Monk.
Walking through the door Christian cracked open, my feet beat a path to my Monk, my patron saint of tuning to your own frequency.
Everything about Monk screams singularity; from head to toe, an individual. The late, great pianist wore a scruffy beard, often shaped into a point. Woolly hats trapped fevered thoughts, in and out of season. Reel after reel of two-tone concert footage catches Monk rising from his bench, dancing a slow reverie around his piano and staying in a groove-like state while his bandmates keep the music going.
Monk’s affect means nothing without the music. His compositions, and the many ways he played them, uphold the myths of genius yet prove it doesn’t manifest in a vacuum. Taking his inheritance—the raw stuff of jazz, their cosmic scales—Monk created a songbook of revelation. With 88 keys, and all their strings and hammers, he perfected imperfection.
Monk’s arc confirms and troubles my understanding of the common exhortations to be yourself and do your own thing. Discovering your voice isn’t always as empowering as we want to believe, his story says. Sometimes that instrument isn’t traditionally beautiful or self-assured; it might sound discordant, like telegraph code in a world of pastoral poetry. Even when your voice rubs people like sandpaper, Monk proved the value in sounding it out.
My instincts, and the sermons I subsequently preach to myself, treat individuality with suspicion. I naturally lean into the ideas put forth in Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues”:
I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes
Unique in each way you can see
And now, after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery
Serving something beyond me
Each moment I spend in Monk’s company divulges an overlooked truth. Owning who you are isn’t about suiting yourself, but fashioning a richer, fuller world. Others miss something of the fullness of the image of God when we are not most ourselves.
So we pound out notes with our elbows, obscure our own melodies and dance a hypnotic lap around the piano for their sake, not our own. Monk tuned to his own frequency because he heard a higher call.
We cannot talk about Monk without talking about his mental illness, interpreted as shiftlessness by people of his age. Or without mentioning the unique disappointment of genius misunderstood—a condition more real in Monk’s case than most. But I still believe the pitches which hummed around him held greater sway than his demons or the great, unmet expectations of peers.
Clutching your compass tight doesn’t always translate into confidence; tracing some of Monk’s songs over 40 years, you hear him disagreeing with himself. But he sounds like someone trying to do as he sees fit, serving and satisfying a song that was alive before him—one he knew would outlast him. Maybe I’m projecting onto one of my heroes. We all do. But Monk’s story nudges us in the direction of something that lies beyond us.
Three years ago, anticipating Monk’s 100th birthday, I wrote an essay for Think Christian comparing the pianist to the Old Testament prophets. The similarities animate his music; Monk calls down fire and speaks in riddles. Taking liberty to breach the New Testament, you sometimes hear him gnawing on locusts and chasing them with honey.
This bond goes beyond the aesthetic. Those who prepare the way the Lord do so at great risk to their own souls. They move through the earth the way they do because they see all the world’s potentialities. They speak and manifest what they love in the world, even as the world repeatedly lets them down.
In Monk’s presence, we are invited to listen closer, tuning our lives as an act of obedience. Everyone who hears him discovers electricity for themselves; then, like the best of our ancestors, they learn not only to heat their own homes, but to light up the world.
Where to begin with Thelonious Monk:
Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane (1961) Start where I did: at this beautiful collision of jazz giants. Monk’s Mercury, spinning so closely to the sun, meets Coltrane’s cooler Neptune; this album captures their six-month stay together at New York’s Five Spot Cafe in 1957. Everything captured here qualifies as magic. Ballads like “Ruby, My Dear” breathe seductive smoke; more idiosyncratic cuts such as “Trinkle, Tinkle” hop, skip and jump into being.
Thelonious Alone in San Francisco (1959) All of Monk’s true solo performances are worth your time; the man could be a symphony unto himself. For some reason, this one beguiles me more than the rest. To hear the fullness of sound two hands can make astonishes.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 (2017) A more “recent” offering, this gorgeous gift comprises Monk’s soundtrack to the 1959 film of the same name. The sessions, once heard only in bygone moviehouses, finally blinked into the light of day three years ago. Multiple versions of the same composition co-exist, illustrating the pianist’s penchant for re-interpreting himself.
Monk! by Youssef Dauodi (2018) Robin D.G. Kelley’s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original is the scholarly work on Monk; it’s a vibrant, comprehensive biography, as complicated as the man himself. But that’s not the first book to read on Monk. Begin instead with this graphic novel, which hinges largely on his relationship with friend and patron Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter. Dauodi plays all the black and white notes in a deep, moody portrait of the artist in various states of being.