In the Name of the Father

T.S. Monk is making music that's all in the family.

When the subject of Thelonius Monk is raised, most people think about the late pianists' groundbreaking compositions and his singular approach to playing, which was marked by rhythmic innovation, subtly virtuosic technique and stirring emotionalism. By contrast, T.S. Monk, Thelonius's only son, is as apt to inspire lust--particularly among females in the audience--as he is to provoke awe at his abilities as a drummer, bandleader and protector of his father's legacy. And that's fine with him.

"That's why a lot of women go to shows; I know that," acknowledges Monk, 48. "One of the things that I do is, I take good care of myself--and I run around on stage in tank tops. I'll take my shirt off, and I'll do all that stuff so those ladies will keep saying, 'That guy's hot.' You know why I do so much of this? So that I don't have to rely on just keeping good time for them to like me. You can be the very best musician, but there are always other reasons they're going to like you.

"I see so many of these young guys today, these young players, who don't address the issue of women," he continues. "Women are one of the two most important demographics in the music industry. It's youth and women--that's it. And if you can nail either one of those groups, you're in the big time. It really doesn't matter which musical genre you're in. But if you look at jazz today, nobody addresses the issue of women. Not even the singers; they don't even sing to the women. Where's the next Billy Eckstine? Where's the next Johnny Hartman? You know, guys who sang a tune that made the ladies die?"

To put it mildly, this kind of talk is uncommon in jazz--and hearing it delivered by the namesake of Monk, widely regarded as one of the most important figures in the history of the style, makes it even more unexpected. But although jazz purists who believe that commercialism sullies their favorite art form may be shocked by such shameless self-promotion, T.S. sees no reason for apologies. After all, he regards himself as a serious man who does serious things. He founded the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz, located at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, in 1986, and continues to be deeply involved in the annual Monk International Competition, which offers prize money and exposure to the finest performers on a variety of instruments. And his most recent recording, last year's Monk on Monk (on the N2K Encoded Music imprint), has earned him no shortage of critical praise. That's as it should be: The disc is a loving evocation of nine Thelonius numbers as rendered by T.S., his regular sextet and impressive guest artists such as Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Roy Hargrove, Kevin Mahogany, Christian McBride and Wayne Shorter. The result doesn't move T.S. out of his dad's shadow, but it establishes him as a formidable artist in his own right.

To T.S., however, being an artist and being an entertainer are not mutually exclusive. It's a lesson he says he learned from his pop. "Thelonius and Miles Davis and the few guys who seemed to have a face or a personality on their music, they really made their imagery up themselves," he insists. "I know that if you read the data on Thelonius in old issues of Down Beat and stuff like that, you come away with the sense that this was a guy totally immersed in his music and was oblivious to things like commerciality and marketing, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The most famous picture of Thelonius is that picture of him wearing those bamboo glasses--and most people don't know the story behind those, but my mother, Nellie, could tell you about it. See, Thelonius wasn't working at the time, and buying those glasses required three weeks of my mother's salary. But Thelonius came home one day and told my mother, 'Look, I just saw some glasses in this shop downtown, and they're for women, so they'd have to make a pair for me. But I'm telling you, if I put on those glasses and this hat, everybody is going to look at me.'

"People don't think in terms of Thelonius Monk thinking about that aspect of his career," T.S. goes on. "But he was very, very cognizant of that. The record companies never really jumped on these things like they should have and sold him with these things. They tried to sell Thelonius intellectually. But what have people locked into thirty years later? They've locked into the total package. People aren't so interested in the pioneering per se as they are in the pioneering that comes in this awesome package. Thelonius had a delivery. He didn't just rely on what he brought to the table as an artist. None of those guys did, because that just ain't enough. You know, if Thelonius was to speak with you, he would have told you that he was an entertainer. That's why Thelonius and all those guys from his era didn't walk around in T-shirts and jeans on stage. They dressed to the nines. That was a part of the whole thing, the whole presentation. Subsequent generations got this idea that nothing counts except what comes out of the end of your horn, but that's just a fallacy. I mean, jazz has had this problem for the last thirty years--the problem of it being entertaining. No one disputes its content. No one disputes its historic significance. The problem you have between the practitioners and the audience is its entertainment value, the delivery of the package. People don't come out for a reality session. They have that anyway. They come out to be entertained."

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