*Bopnicity :: The Mad Monk
Thelonius Monk

Bop Beginnings

Now I want to write what I know about how and why bop got started. Monk and some of the cleverest of the young musicians used to complain: "We'll never get credit for what we're doing." They had reason to say it.

In the music business the going is tough for original talent. Everybody is being exploited through paid for publicity and most anybody can become a great name if he can afford enough of it. In the end the public believes what it reads. So it is often difficult for the real talent to break through.

Anyway, Monk said: "We're going to get a big band started. We're going to create something they can't steal, because they can't play it."

There were more than a dozen people interested in the idea and the band began rehearsing in a basement somewhere. Monk was writing arrangements and Bud Powell and maybe Milt Jackson. Everyone contributed towards the arrangements, and some of them were real tough. Even those guys couldn't always get them right.

It was the usual story. The guys got hungry, so they had to go to work with different bands. Monk got himself a job at Minton's -- the house that built bop -- and after work the cats fell in to jam, and pretty soon you couldn't get in Minton's for musicians and instruments.

Minton's Playhouse was not a large place, but it was nice and intimate. The bar was at the front, and the cabaret was in the back. The bandstand was situated at the rear of the back room, where the wall was covered with strange paintings depicting weird characters sitting on a brass bed, or jamming, or talking to chicks.

The Kids Danced

During the daytime, people played the juke-box and danced. I used to call in often and got many laughs. It is amazing how happy those characters were jiving, dancing, and drinking. It seemed everybody was talking at the same time; the noise was terrific. Even the kids playing out on the sidewalk danced when they heard the records.

That's how we were then -- one big family on West 118th Street. Minton's was a room next door to the Cecil Hotel, and it was run by Teddy Hill, the one-time band leader who did quite well in Europe and who now managed for Minton.

Henry Minton must have been a man about fifty, who at one time played saxophone and at another owned the famous Rhythm Club, where Louis, Fats, James P., Earl Hines, and other big names filled the sessions. He had also been a musician's union official at Local 802.

He believed in keeping the place up and was constantly redecorating. And the food was good. Lindsay Steele had the kitchen at one time. He cooked wonderful meals and was a good mixer, who could sing a while during intermission.

When Monk first played at Minton's there were few musicians who could run changes with him. Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, ldrees Sulieman, and a couple more were the only ones who could play along with Monk then. Charlie and I used to go to the basement of the hotel where I lived and play and write all night long. I still have the music of a song he started but never completed.

Sometime in 1943 1 had an offer to go into Cafe Society Downtown. I accepted, though fearing I might be shaky on solo piano since I had been so long with Andy Kirk's band and my own combo.

I immediately made some arrangments for six-pieces to accompany piano. At my opening people were standing upstairs, which I was glad to see. Georgia Gibbs, who was just starting out, was in the show with Ram Ramirez (composer of" Lover Man"), playing piano for her. Pearl Primus was also in tihe show, and Frankie Newton had the small band. I was sorry to hear of Newton's death just recently. He was a real great trumpet man, always very easy on the ear.

During this period Monk and the kids would come to my apartment every morning around 4 or pick me up at the cafe after I'd finished my last show and we'd play and swap ideas until noon or later.

Monk, Tadd Dameron, Kenny Dorham, Bud Powell, Aaron Bridges, Bill Strayhorn, plus various disc jockeys and newspapermen would be in and out of my place at all hours, and we'd really ball.

When Monk wrote a new song he customarily played it night and day for weeks unless you stopped him. That, he said, was the only way to find out if it was going to be any good. "Either it grew on [you] or it didn't."

Losing Credit

I have considered myself lucky having men like Monk and Bud playing me the things they have composed. And I have always upheld and had faith in the boppers, for they originated something but looked like losing credit for it.

Too often I have seen people being chummy with creative musicians, then when the people have dug what is happening put down the creators and proclaim themselves king or jazz, swing or whatever.

So the boppers worked out a music that was hard to steal. I'll say this for the "leeches," though: they tried. I've seen them in Minton's busily writing on their shirt cuffs or scribbling on the tablecloth. And even our own guys, I'm afraid, did not give Monk the credit he had coming. Why, they even stole his idea of the beret and bop glasses.

I happened to run into Thelonious standing next door to the 802 Union building on Sixth Avenue, where I was going to pay my dues. He was looking at some heavy framed sun glasses in a shop window, and said he was going to have a pair made similar to a pair of ladies' glasses he had seen and liked.

He suggested a few improvements in the design, and I remember laughing at him. But he had them made in the Bronx, and several days later came to the house with his new glasses and, of course, a beret. He had been wearing a beret, with a small piano clip on it, for some years previous to this. Now he started wearing the glasses and beret and the others copied him.

Out of that first big band Monk formed grew people like Milt Jackson, J. J. Johnson and Bud Powell. No one could play like Bud, not until he recorded and the guys had a chance to dig him.

Ringing Notes

And even now they cannot play just like him, for I believe he is the only pianist who makes every note ring. The strength in his fingers must be unequalled.

Yet, I am forced to the conclusion that Monk influenced him as a kid. He idolises Monk and can interpret Monk's compositions better than anyone I know. And the two used to be inseparable. At the piano Bud still does a few things the way Monk would do them, though he has more technique.

Yes, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey and Idress Sulieman were the first to play bop. Next were Parker, Gillespie, and Clyde Hart, now dead, who was sensational on piano. After them came J. J. Johnson, Bud Powell, Al Haig, Milt Jackson, Tadd Dameron, Leo Parker, Babs Gonzales, Max Roach, Kenny Dorham and Oscar Pettiford.

Those men played the authentic bop, and anybody who heard the small combo that Dizzy kept together for so long in New York should easily be able to distinguish the music from the imitation article.

It's Accentuation!

Often you hear guys blowing a lot of notes and people say: "They're bopping." But they are not. Bop is the phrasing and accenting of the notes as well as the harmonies used. Every other note is accented.

Never in the history of jazz has the phrasing been like it is in bop. Musicians like Dave Brubeck come up with different styles which may be interesting. But they are not bop.

Personally, I have always believed that bebop was here to stay. That's one reason I tried to encourage the original modernists to continue writing and experimenting.

Right from the start, musical reactionaries have said the worst about bop. But after seeing the Savoy Ballroom kids fit dances to this kind of music, I felt it was destined to become the new era of music, though not taking anything away from Dixieland or swing or any of the other great stars of jazz.

I see no reason why there should be a battle in music. All of us aim to make our listeners happy.

Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams was known as the First Lady of the Piano. She was a bop artist, contributor to the development of bop, and a bop enthusiast and champion. She was friend and mentor to Thelonius Monk, and friend to many jazz legends. Read more about Mary Lou Williams here.

By Mary Lou Williams, From Melody Maker, May 22, 1954, www.MonkZone.com


Check out Monk playing "Round Midnight" here, and his biography, Thelonious Monk, The Life And Times Of An American Original here.


*Bopnicity is registered by L'cinda Scott-McCall




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