Thursday, August 15, 2013

Monk in our sphere

By Chet Williamson

It’s been rumored among local jazz fans for years that the late-great pianist Thelonious Sphere Monk flipped one of his many hats here in Worcester. It was actually in Grafton. 

In 1964, TIME magazine under the headline: Thelonious Monk: “Pretty Butterfly” reported that, “In Boston Thelonious Monk once wandered around the airport until the police picked him up and took him to Grafton State Hospital for a week’s observation. He was quickly released without strings, and the experience persuaded him never to go out on the road alone again.”

Martin Williams further chronicled the incident in Esquire magazine. “In the spring of 1959, he was booked for a week at Boston’s Storyville. He had been up for some three days and nights without sleep. When he arrived, he came to the desk of the Copley Square Hotel, where Storyville is located, with a glass of liquor in his hand after flitting around the lobby rather disconcertingly, examining the walls.”


Storyville was a club inside the Copley. It was first opened in 1950 by the famed impresario and founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, George Wein. The hotel is still there on the corner of Exeter Street and Huntington Ave., Boston. Wein was forced to move the club out of the hotel for a time, only to return in 1953 with Charlie Parker featuring young trumpeter Herb Pomeroy playing its grand opening.

“The room sat just under 200 people, banquet style,” Wein recalled in his memoir, Myself Among Others. Adding, “There wasn’t a bad seat in the house.”

For 10 years -- the club closed in 1960 — everybody who was anybody in jazz at the time, played Storyville, including the great Monk. Here’s how Wein describes him: “Webster’s Dictionary gives eight different definitions of the word ‘genius.’ The one that applies to Thelonious Monk reads, “an exceptional natural capacity of intellect especially as shown in creative and original work in science, art, music, etc., e.g. the genius of Mozart.’

Charlie Parker and Monk 
"There's no question that Thelonious fits this definition. I believe his schizophrenia kept him from realizing the full potential of his enormous creativity." 

The long feature on Monk in TIME appeared in the February 28, 1964. The piece was written by Barry Farrell and called The Loneliest Monk. In the section titled, “Pretty Butterfly,” he writes, “At the piano, Monk is clearly tending to business, but once he steps away from it, people begin to wonder. Aside from his hat and the incessant shuffle of his feet, he looks like a perfectly normal neurotic. “Solid!” and “All reet!” are about all he will say in the gravelly sigh that serves as his voice, but his friends attribute great spiritual strength to him. Aware of his power over people, Monk is enormously selfish in the use of it. Passive, poutish moods sweep over him as he shuffles about, looking away, a member of the race of strangers.

“Every day is a brand-new pharmaceutical event for Monk: alcohol, Dexedrine, sleeping potions, whatever is at hand, charge through his bloodstream in baffling combinations. 

Predictably, Monk is highly unpredictable. When gay, he is gentle and blithe to such a degree that he takes to dancing on the sidewalks, buying extravagant gifts for anyone who comes to mind, playing his heart out. One day last fall he swept into his brother’s apartment to dance before a full-length mirror so he could admire his collard-leaf boutonniere; he left without a word. “Hey!” he will call out. “Butterflies faster than birds? Must be, ’cause with all the birds on the scene up in my neighborhood, there’s this butterfly, and he flies any way he wanna. Yeah. Black and yellow butterfly. Pretty butterfly.” At such times, he seems a very happy man."

The article was originally scheduled to appear in the November 1963 issue, but was bumped. It was the time of JFK’s assassination.

Farrell writes candidly about Monk’s demons. He continues: “At other times he appears merely mad. He has periods of acute disconnection in which he falls totally mute. He stays up for days on end, prowling around desperately in his rooms, troubling his friends, playing the piano as if jazz were a wearying curse. In Boston Monk once wandered around the airport until the police picked him up and took him to Grafton State Hospital for a week’s observation.

Copley Square, circa 1950s
“Much of the confusion about the state of Monk’s mind is simply the effect of Monkish humor. He has a great reputation in the jazz world as a master of the “put-on,” a mildly cruel art invented by hipsters as a means of toying with squares. Monk is proud of his skill. “When anybody says something that’s a drag,” he says, “I just say something that’s a bigger drag. Ain’t nobody can beat me at it either. I’ve had plenty of practice.” Lately, though, Monk has been more mannerly and conventional.

“He says he hates the ‘mad genius’ legend he has lived with for 20 years, though he’s beginning to wonder politely about the ‘genius’ part. By his own admission, Wein had little recollection of the musical comings and goings at Storyville in the late 1950s. Between his trips to Europe and increasing festival responsibilities, he was just too busy.


“But I remember well the Storyville debut of the Thelonious Monk quartet in the spring of 1959,” he says. “I had worked with Monk at Newport in 1955 and 1958, but had no personal relationship at this time. So I didn’t know what to make of it when Thelonious came to Boston in an agitated state.”
Though he doesn’t name the personnel, the quartet in ’59 was most likely saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist John Ore and drummer Frankie Dunlop. By the way, check out footage of Monk’s performance in the film, Jazz on a Summer’s DaySee: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vn2kLBedk_o

Picking up the story at Storyville, Wein says, “I wasn’t there when he arrived at the Copley Square Hotel and was refused a room; he had alarmed the hotel staff by scrutinizing the lobby walls, with a glass of liquor in one hand.

“The first set that night was scheduled for 8 o’clock. Thelonious didn’t show up until 10. The fact that the audience stayed put for two solid hours without complaint amazed me. They had such love for the music of Monk that they were willing to sit patiently, even though it was entirely possible that their man might not even make the gig.”

Williams reports that after Monk was refused a room, he declined to take another at the Hotel Bostonian where his sidemen were staying. In his account of the 10 o’clock arrival, Williams states, “The room was nearly full of expectant but patient people. He played two numbers, and came off. At 11:30 p.m., he played the same two numbers, sat motionless at the piano for what seemed like half an hour. His bewildered sidemen had left the stand after about eight minutes.”


Here’s Wein’s account: “When Thelonious did arrive, he went straight to the bandstand, where his sidemen were waiting. He played two songs, then walked off and wandered aimlessly around the room, picking imaginary flies off the walls. The audience watched him in silent bewilderment. I got him to return to the stage at 11:30, and he played the same two songs again. Then he sat at the piano without moving for some time. His bandmates eventually left the stand. I had no idea what to do. I had tried talking to Monk, with no response. After what seemed to be an eternity, Thelonious stood up from the piano, shuffled around for a few minutes, and left the club."

George Wein 












Williams says Monk was obviously disturbed about the hotel situation. He finally registered at the Bostonian, but didn’t like the room and left. He then tried the Statler but was refused a room so he took a cab to the airport. “Planes, however, were no longer running, and he was picked up by a state trooper to whom he would not or could not communicate,” Williams says.

Monk finally revealed who he was, but it was too late. The trooper took him to Grafton State Hospital for observation. 

Grafton State Hospital
Grafton State Hospital was first opened in 1901 as a farm colony of the Insane Hospital in Worcester. In 1912 it separated from Worcester to become its own entity. The patient population hit its peak in 1952 with 23,000 people. It closed in 1973. The Mental Health Commissioner Milton Greenblatt at the time said the decision to close the Grafton facility, which had more than 1,000 acres of land and 50 buildings, was due to the deteriorating condition of the physical plant. He also said that “our hospitals still have too many in-patients who could be out-patients if supporting services were available to them. Massachusetts cannot afford the human or financial costs of institutionalizing people who would be better off at home.”


These days the state-own land is the home of the Tufts University Veterinary School and a variety of social agencies. There are also more than 1,000 nameless grave sites on the property.

Wein says when Monk was picked up by police and taken to the hospital, he knew nothing of it, “however, when I called both his manager, Harry Colomby, and Nellie Monk [wife] the following morning to ask whether Monk had gone back to New York, they realized that his whereabouts where unknown and they grew frantic. Harry hired a private detective, who questioned Boston’s Finest (but not the state police).”

“He was lost there for a week,” Williams says. “No one knew what had happened to him. The local Boston police were checked, but no one thought of trying the state police. A letter the hospital claims it sent to Nellie Monk never arrived. By accident, an acquaintance in Boston heard mention of Monk’s whereabouts on a local TV show. Nellie rushed to Massachusetts and secured his release. There had been no grounds on which he could be held. “It was the combination,” a friend later speculated, “of exhaustion after several days without sleep and the fact that he disconnected at first, and that he was away from New York and Nellie.”

Nellie and Thelonious
In typical Monkian eccentricity, the composer turned the episode around and used it as a certification of his sanity. “I can’t be crazy,” he said with conviction, “cause they had me in one of those places and they let me go.” 

Monk died on February 17, 1982. His life, in all of its ugly/beauty, mysterious/majesty, and tortured/brilliance, is there in the music. Listen.    

·        Sections of this article first appeared in Worcester Magazine.

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: walnutharmonicas@gmail.com. Also see: www.worcestersongs.blogspot.com  Thank you.


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