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In the Name of the Father

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."  

The younger Monk's perspective on issues like these was shaped by years observing the jazz scene as the ultimate insider. He grew up in a house where legends like Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane were frequent visitors. "I was around my father and all those guys," he remembers. "And they were happy-go-lucky--partying, telling jokes, jiving and cajoling all the time. That's all I saw. To this intellectual, pensive thing that I see projected by people, I say, 'Where did they get that from?' They didn't get that from the real players, because I was around the real players, and they never acted like that."

Music was in T.S.'s blood, and he first started making it on the trumpet before switching to drums. (Max Roach provided him with his first pair of sticks; Art Blakey gave him his first kit.) By the time he was twenty, he was proficient enough on the skins to earn a slot in his father's band. He supported Thelonius in this role for four years. Then, after Monk stopped touring in 1975, seven years before his death, T.S. began to branch out. He was part of Natural Essence, a fusion act that recorded for Atlantic Records, and cut several platters with Paul Jeffrey's Big Band before putting together an R&B/funk group whose moniker was the same as his. T.S. Monk, which also featured his sister Boo Boo Monk and singer Yvonne Fletcher, made three albums and received airplay for the singles "Bon Bon Vie" and "Too Much Too Soon," despite being ripped by many reviewers. Scribe Dave Marsh dismissed the outfit's 1980 offering House of Music by stating that T.S. "hasn't created anything that will last nearly so long as the least of his old man's creations."

Before T.S. could prove naysayers like Marsh wrong, tragedy intervened: Fletcher, who was also T.S.'s significant other, died in 1983, and Boo Boo did likewise the following year. T.S. was so devastated by these losses that he actually stopped making music for a time--and when he returned, he did so in a jazz vein. This switch caused many jazz writers to view him with suspicion: Take One, a 1991 album that served as his full-scale jazz debut, is described in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP & Cassette as "crude hard bop" that's "crashingly (and we mean crashingly) banal." But as the Nineties rolled on, T.S. slowly began winning over pundits and listeners alike. Discs such as Changing of the Guard and The Charm received increasingly kind notices, and his efforts as artistic director and host, respectively, for A Tribute to America's Music and Jazz at the White House, a pair of widely viewed television specials, helped convince doubters that he had finally committed himself to the music of his father.

Monk on Monk further underlined this impression even as it found T.S. coming to terms with his musical birthright. Today he scoffs at the notion of complaining about the increased pressures that come along with his family ties. "Whenever I think things are bad, the first thing that I look at is my father. Then I say, 'Golly. Boy, oh boy--isn't life tough for you? You decided to become a musician late, at fifteen, but still were able to make top-ten funk records by the time you were thirty, and now you're sitting on top of the jazz world at 48. Hasn't life been tough for you? Everybody knew your name the day you were born. Doors have opened for you. You never even had to say anything; they just opened for the love of your dad. Hasn't life been rough?'

"I can't really think of anything in my life that compares with the stuff I saw my father go through," he elaborates. "Compared to all the tests Dad went through, my life is a cakewalk. If you can't make something out of a name that you didn't even have to do anything for it to be important, well, damn. That's just sort of my feeling about a lot of children of famous people. I mean, you've got such a leg up on the rest of the world; how can you fuck that up? Come on--most of the world spends their whole lives trying to do something that will get people to remember their name for a day or two. So if you have a name that people know before you even open your mouth--golly, that makes your work a whole lot easier."  

More work is on T.S.'s agenda. After completing his current tour, he plans to head back into the studio with his sextet. He hopes that the results will be surprising. "The public in general seems to enjoy the fact that I'm Monk's son and that I made funk records and I made straightahead jazz records, but I can also do this chairman of the board thing. So my next work will give you just a little different look, because that is the license that was given to me by virtue of my name. It's like, 'His name is Monk. We all know what he is going to do. He's going to do his own thing.' So I'm going to continue to do my own thing, and I don't seem, so far, to have made the wrong move. But when I do make the wrong move, the first one to let me know will be John Doe Public. So I don't worry about being notified when I fuck up."

Obviously, T.S. doesn't spend a lot of time worrying about self-esteem. He may be the married father of two children, but that doesn't mean he's given up on trying to look fine for the females of the species. "I just came from the gym," he says. "Being in shape when you're young is par for the course. But being in shape when you're in your forties and fifties drives women crazy. A little gray hair and a few muscles, and they say, 'Oh, yeah, that's where it's at.' So I'm completely happy being a slave to my ego, and I won't let the ladies down. If it makes women happy, it's important."

T.S. Monk. 8 p.m. Thursday, February 26, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, $25/$22.50/$17.50, 786-7030.


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