Monday, January 18, 2010

Manby’s Head / Thelonious Monk

The Secret Museum
Michael Mooney & Jim Webb

I’m Manby, Fly Me

Upon arrival in Taos some dozen years ago, I assumed that I would shortly encounter other forward/backward-thinking musicians with the shared intention of making a gigantic racket. This is an Art town after all, and where there’s Art there’s normally an accompanying healthy musical environment. Sadly—and in true Taos-as-contradiction fashion—this was not the case. There were (and still are), of course, a small number of bands who broke out of their respective garages long enough to play one (ware-) house party before disappearing again, but for the most part, what you see today featured in the bars and at the occasional summer music festival held true then: there is simply no evidence of authentic Rock and Roll to be found among the Jazzbos, jammy world-music poseurs and pseudo Country and Blues groups who cater to the local tourist crowd. Why is this, I wondered (I know a number of people hereabouts with exemplary tastes in music, folks who won’t hesitate to make the five-plus hour drive just to see Yo La Tengo play in Denver)? The obvious answer is that Rock doesn’t make money these days, it’s not propitious to the true Taos experience, it’s noisy and upsets the vacationers (Texans don’t like Rock? Since when?), it attracts an unpredictable audience—they don’t drink enough, they drink too much …

I’ve spoken to several local musicians and it’s true: the money’s in the safe bet, keep it mellow, encourage the two-step, sell those Bud Lights and margaritas.

“I find world music very disconcerting.”—Peter Greenberg

A Rock guitarist with an extensive pedigree—DMZ, The Customs, Lyres, Barrence Whitfield and The Savages—Peter Greenberg believes the Taos music scene lacks energy. When Peter moved here two years ago, he had no expectations of connecting with like-minded players. I first met him last June at Robin McLean’s Taosound record store. He was spinning obscure Garage Rock 45s for an audience of 12. Two weeks later we convened at Paul Reid’s house. A few songs were attempted: “Wild Thing,” maybe “Gloria,” maybe “Teenage Kicks,” I don’t remember. I hadn’t played guitar in years. It showed. An inauspicious start, to be sure, but there was something there.

“The kids are trying; they just lack the correct references.”—Paul Reid

Paul Reid is one of those bassists who make it look effortless. Trust me, it isn’t. He’s got that fluid approach that’s easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. Paul’s been around these parts for 15 years or so. He’s spent the past several keeping various skillful (and in my opinion, unrelieved) rootsy sorts grounded (the gigs pay), but his heart belongs to Power Pop. Close enough.

“It’s been an education on many different levels.”—Eric Whitlock

After a disastrous encounter with a thrash drummer—“I can play Anarchy in triple time.” No. You can’t—and one session with the talented but geographically-challenged Tom Trusnovic, we found Eric Whitlock on craigslist (!), and soon liberated him from a whingy numbers-in-their-name-type punk (lower case p) abomination (you’re welcome, Eric.)

Lineup complete, we commenced writing and rehearsal sessions. The results were documented in December at Jon Gold’s studio above Valdez. (Highly recommended. Taos is very lucky to have this guy.) If there’s a place for Rock in this complicated little town, we’ll find out eventually.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Manby’s Head:

Michael Mooney

Thelonious Monk: The Labeling of a Jazz Icon
It has been 27 years since the death of pianist/composer Thelonious Monk in 1982. He was never a fan of jazz-rock in the late ’60s and early ’70s, so I don’t think he would have found anything of interest in the smooth jazz movement that he’s missed since his passing.
Labels are something, though, that Monk knew all about. He has been credited in the 1940s with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, among others, as being a founder of the Be-Bop style of jazz. The Swing era was slowly giving way to a new sound that could be found uptown in Harlem, New York. Minton’s Playhouse was one of the few clubs that played this new music and Thelonious was the house piano player there. Monk has acknowledged earlier stride piano players like James P. Johnson and Art Tatum as influences, and loved Duke Ellington, but his notes and chords didn’t always follow their established patterns. He was called a lot of things early in his career; few were complimentary. Fake, fraud and charlatan were used to describe his unorthodox style of playing. It bothered him, but he just kept on writing new tunes in his bedroom as his reply. After he secured a recording contract with Blue Note records in 1947, things got a little better—he was now referred to as eccentric, mysterious and even mad. Monk was labeled for several different reasons; the swing era fans and critics didn’t understand what he was up to and simply claimed he couldn’t play. His record company was trying to push him as a strange artist to create added interest, and mostly succeeded because he was eventually known as Mad Monk, or The High Priest of Be-Bop. All of this is expertly written about in Robin D.G. Kelley’s new book, “Thelonious Monk—The Life and Times of an American Original.”

Kelley has spent the last 14 years researching and writing this biography with the indispensable help of the extended Monk family. A historical work that encompasses not only the Jim Crow South of North Carolina where Monk was born in 1917, but one that illuminates his music throughout one of the most tumultuous periods of American life. I found it fascinating to read how Monk began a long residency at a club called The Five Spot in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1957, which soon became the jazz center of the world. The Five Spot was a rundown writers’ and painters’ hangout where you could find Kerouac or Ginsberg rubbing elbows with DeKooning and Jackson Pollock. The Beats and the Abstract Impressionists loved jazz; it was “in the moment,” just like their work. The improvising jazz musician spontaneously heading off into a new direction and breaking established forms was something they were already familiar with.

Monk’s recorded legacy is detailed in this comprehensive book, from his first sides to his final composition. The most consistent criticism by others in the 1960s about Monk was that he didn’t write many new songs. Even though he became better known (including a Time magazine cover in ’64) and played to bigger crowds later in his career, the real diamonds he had created and polished as a composer were mostly from the 40s and 50s. All the various medical problems that plagued Thelonious throughout his lifetime are also described, as well as the medications and treatment he received. The curious may just want to read about him dancing around in circles like a whirling dervish, but Monk had a complex personality that is dealt with here in a straightforward way. Robin Kelley should be applauded for such a fine effort, and Monk fanatics will be in heaven with this new treasure trove of inside information on his life. If you are unfamiliar with his work, this is certainly an excellent place to start.

My favorite anecdote in the book occurred in December of 1971, when Monk and his wife Nellie went to see The Duke Ellington Orchestra at The Rainbow Grill in Rockefeller Center, New York City. The band was in full “swing” as Monk walked toward a table to sit down; Duke eyed him from the stage and immediately cut the band off in mid song and approached the mike. “Ladies and gentlemen, the baddest left hand in the history of jazz has just entered the room, Mr. Thelonious Monk.” Monk stood there smiling at Duke as the crowd gave him a long ovation. Thelonious had started taking piano lessons at the age of 11 in 1928. After 43 years of people telling Monk how he sounded, the great Duke Ellington had just given him his ultimate compliment. On this night, Thelonious Monk didn’t mind being labeled at all.

Jim Webb

Survey results
Last month, we conducted a survey asking your preference for a local appearance. The votes are in: Taos wants The Black Angels (but you’re not getting them.)
Site Meter