Monk’s Day

Always a wizard of the unexpected, Lord Buckley introduced his meditation on the Supermarket by riffing on one of his great heroes. “This is Lincoln’s Day,” he says. “Tomorrow should be Lincoln’s Day, and the next day should be Lincoln’s Day, and we should have Lincolnville and Lincoln Park and Lincoln Lincoln, and it should be Lincoln Head City, because he laid it down tight and right and cool and crazy.”

Truth be told, I’ve always felt the same way about Thelonious Monk, another great emancipator, another master, if I may say so, of the unexpected. That we should celebrate his memory, if only by listening to his music, every day of the year, year after year, until that day when the years cease to matter. When I think of Monk, hard and tragic as his life may have been in some ways, I don’t think of death and endings but of life and beginnings, of spring instead of winter. That moment of release and joy during “In Walked Bud” when Art Blakey slaps the snare to introduce George Taitt’s trumpet solo.

So it was appropriate yesterday, as I was catching my breath after a workout at the JCC, that the jazz writer and historian Ken Waxman should suddenly appear and ask what I was doing to celebrate Monk’s birthday. “I didn’t realize the day-of-days was upon us,” I said, “but actually …”


Actually, I’d just received in the mail a photo I’d ordered from Mosaic Records. The photo was of Monk and a saxophonist playing at a jazz club in New York City.

“Charlie Rouse?”

“No, before him.” My memory was hazy. I thought the club may have been the Five Spot.

“John Coltrane? Sonny Rollins?”

“Nobody that famous. And again, earlier.”

“Not Sahib Shahib?”

“That’s it!”

“Well, it wasn’t the Five Spot, then, because that club didn’t exist when Monk was playing with Shahib.”

I was able to pull up the photo on my cellphone, and we learned that Francis Wolff had taken it in 1948, during a performance at the Village Vanguard.

“Wow, that’s really early,” said Ken. “You’re very lucky, you know.”

I asked why I was lucky.

“Well, not many people can say they have a photo of Sahib Shahib.”

In Chronicles, Bob Dylan reminisces about a time in the early 60s, when he used to stop by another Greenwich Village club, the Blue Note, where Monk was playing in a trio with the drummer Frankie Dunlop and the bassist John Ore. Dylan would go in the afternoon, when Monk was there by himself practicing on the piano. The songs he played reminded Dylan of the rhythm-and-blues artist Ivory Joe Hunter. One day, Dylan introduced himself and said he played folk music at a place up the street. The great man nodded and said, “We all play folk music.”

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