Thelonious Monk Bombs in Paris in 1954, Then Makes a Triumphant Return in 1969

Thelo­nious Monk’s pop­u­lar image as the hippest of the hip in mid-cen­tu­ry bebop is well-deserved, but his career tra­jec­to­ry was not with­out its lame notes, includ­ing the loss of his cabaret license for sev­er­al years after a 1951 drug bust in New York with Bud Pow­ell. The inci­dent forced him to leave the haven of the Minton’s Play­house after-hours jam ses­sion scene and strike out for new venues and new out­lets, such as record­ing the sem­i­nal two-vol­ume Genius of Mod­ern Music in 1952, which fea­tured some of the ear­li­est, most bois­ter­ous ver­sions of Monk com­po­si­tions like soon-to-be stan­dard “Well, You Needn’t.” In 1954, Monk arrived in Paris where he per­formed at the Salle Pleyel to an audi­ence that most­ly didn’t know him. Patrick Jaren­wat­tananon at NPR describes the night:

[H]e had almost no pub­lic pro­file in France apart from the most hard­core of mod­ern jazz fans; he was ner­vous and prob­a­bly drunk; and he fol­lowed an enor­mous­ly pop­u­lar Dix­ieland band on stage. Crit­ics in atten­dance panned him, con­fused by his unique dis­so­nances and agi­tat­ed stage behav­ior. The gig was, as biog­ra­ph­er Robin Kel­ley described it, a dis­as­ter.

To make mat­ters worse, Jaren­wat­tananon writes, Monk—used to rhythm play­ers like Art Blakey and Al McKibbon—was appar­ent­ly “assigned a local rhythm sec­tion which was prob­a­bly unfa­mil­iar with his music.” You can hear Monk above from a record­ing he made dur­ing that trip, with­out said rhythm sec­tion, play­ing “Round About Mid­night” in his expres­sive­ly per­cus­sive piano style. Monk’s style, famous­ly described by Philip Larkin as a “faux-naif ele­phant dance,” was rapid­ly devel­op­ing as he came into his own as a band­leader and com­pos­er.  But although per­haps a per­son­al mile­stone (Monk met life­long friend, patron, and devo­tee Pan­non­i­ca de Koenigswarter that night), the Paris gig of 1954 was a bust that haunt­ed the inno­v­a­tive pianist.

And so it was that fif­teen years lat­er, Monk returned to the Salle Pleyel with his own quar­tet. This time, Jaren­wat­tananon tells us, he arrived as an “inter­na­tion­al star.” The con­cert was tele­vised, and, on Novem­ber 26th, it will be released as an audio record­ing and DVD sim­ply called Paris 1969 (see Monk’s quar­tet play “I Mean You” in an excerpt above). For a short time, you can pre­view and pre-order indi­vid­ual tracks from the record­ing or lis­ten to the whole con­cert straight through at NPR’s site. It’s a mel­low­er Monk than his mid-fifties incar­na­tion, with­out a doubt, not the “tap-danc­ing, elbows-on-the-piano Monk of yore,” writes Jaren­wat­tananon: “But it’s Monk doing Monk, swing­ing intense­ly through severe rhyth­mic crevass­es” and gen­er­al­ly exud­ing the con­fi­dence and panache of his hero Duke Elling­ton.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Advice From the Mas­ter: Thelo­nious Monk Scrib­bles a List of Tips for Play­ing a Gig

Thelo­nious Monk: Straight No Chas­er

Andy Warhol Cre­ates Album Cov­ers for Jazz Leg­ends Thelo­nious Monk, Count Basie & Ken­ny Bur­rell

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.