Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Max on Monk

Max on Monk

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The “Max” in the title of this piece does not refer to the more obvious connection to Thelonious Monk – drummer, Max Roach – but rather, to one of the more original, urbane and erudite perspectives in Jazz writing, that of, Max Harrison.

To attribute to Max his comments about Monk in the opening sentence of the following essay “… his singular originality was enough to ensure a hostile reception” – would be to put the matter lightly as Mr. Harrison’s musings always seemed to inflame passions wherever and however they were expressed.

Perhaps the strong reactions from some Jazz fans engendered by Max’s opinions had to do with the fact that he generally knew what he was talking about and wasn’t afraid to express his views very directly.

He’s not always easy to read, but if one is willing to make the effort, one usually comes away from Max’s essays well-rewarded with more knowledge and a totally different “take” on Jazz and its makers.

Here’s a sampling.

© -  Max Harrison/Jazz Journal, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“If his singular originality was enough to ensure a hostile reception, it still is ironic that for many years comment on Monk centered around his supposed incompetence as a pianist. On his best days his public perfor­mances demonstrated, with a clarity which no recording ever could approach, that this musician was, in his highly individual command of the instrument and absolute control of his especial musical resources, as remarkable a virtuoso as, say, Earl Hines. The two transcendent techniques were, obviously, quite different, and in Hines's case the dazzling texture of his music, although shaped by an eminently characteristic melodic and rhythmic invention, was firmly rooted in the scale, arpeggio and chordal formations that have always provided the basis of tonal keyboard music.

In sharp contrast, Monk's pianism, strictly in accord with other aspects of his work, if it did not lead us to go quite so far as Andre Brassai, who wrote "awkwardness means greatness and lack of skill means talent and these things are signs of genuine creativity" (i), still had little connection with established conventions, and was of a purer, more directly musical order. His strength lay not in complex executive feats but in a deployment, at once sensitive and vividly incisive, of some of the basic elements of jazz: time, metre, accent, space. This is why, with minor exceptions like the Dutchman Stido Astrom, his influence was not on other pianists but on players of other instruments: the lessons he offered were purely musical, not arising of necessity out of the keyboard.

Certain of Monk's recorded solos, or sections of them, consist of rhythmic variations on the thematic line with shifting metres and evolving patterns of accentual displacement. When he first appeared, in the 19408, such a method seemed dangerously radical in comparison with the then usual system of basing improvised lines solely on the chordal harmonisation of the theme, not on the theme itself. That was because people who listened to Monk had never heard Jelly Roll Morton, and people who knew of Morton's use of motivic development wished to hear nothing of Monk. To both, of course, thematic varia­tion was an essential process.

Much was made of Monk's harmonic innovations, and his pungent, hard-biting sonorities were the aspect of his language which aroused nearly as much adverse criticism as his playing. Yet this shows how right Stanley Dance, a tireless advocate of progress in jazz, always a friend of the latest development, was to complain of the jazz audience's frequent "inability to appreciate the joy of the musician in expression through harmonies rich and strange", of listeners' "narrowed sen­sibility which does not permit them to perceive, through its subtlety and complexity, the inner integrity of much of the later jazz" (2). Certainly in Monk's harmony, and perhaps more immediately than in his exceptionally subtle rhythm, we apprehend a needle-sharp in­telligence which rigorously avoids the commonplace.

Yet however striking this music may be on rhythmic and harmonic planes, it is always informed and directed by the requirements of melody. If the melodic construction is often severe in its economy this is because Monk knew precisely what he wanted to say and how to say it, because he had full command both of his ideas and their means of communication. Thus is explained much of the immense temperamental drive and magnetic cogency of his finest work—again, not fully conveyed on any recording. In his most representative moments all effort was devoted to the true expressive aim, none wasted on mere decoration. Such control is an authentic sign of mastery, but naturally Monk could not bring it off every time; indeed, he was in the same situation as a sculptor for whom one false stroke could ruin the whole statue.

In fact it is misleading to discuss the separate aspects of Monk's work too much in isolation. All elements of rhythm, melody and harmony interact so closely that it is unrealistic to consider one without the others. Monk did not offer an assemblage of easily identifiable trade marks in the manner of a popular soloist: his improvisations are new wholes, not just accumulations of pleasing objects. He was, in short, a composer, not simply because he wrote many 'tunes', or even themes, but because the compositional mode of thinking is evident in everything he did. One instance is his accompanying of other improvisers, for, instead of providing the normal type of chordal support, he often set modified fragments of the theme beside—not behind—the soloist's line in such a way as to give extended performances a closer-knit feeling of thematic reference. A different illustration is his treat­ment of popular songs like Smoke gets in your eyes, where he abstracts and rearranges the components to a quite drastic extent.

Just as Monk's pianism was unusually direct in its musicality, so his recordings, for all their self-consistent idiosyncrasies, have a curious air of objectivity. Even when the choruses follow the conventional AABA pattern of four eight-bar phrases, they are in the tradition of 'com­positions for band', like Morton's Cannonball blues or Bix Beiderbecke's Humpty Dumpty, rather than jazz versions of mere songs. As such, pieces like Epistrophy or Criss cross are altogether foreign to the world of pop­ular music in a way that, for example, even masterpieces of transmuta­tion such as Coleman Hawkins's Talk of the town or Charlie Parker's Embraceableyou can never quite be. And, with a few exceptions like the train piece Little roo tie-too tie, his works never attempt to establish a particular atmosphere, as does Mood indigo by Duke Ellington, or to suggest a specific place, like Tadd Dameron's Fontainebleau.

They are, rather, investigations of perfectly specific musical ideas, such as the minor seconds idea of Mysterioso or the diminished fifth ideas of Skippy, which arise out of his unusually acute awareness of the expressive weight of a given melodic interval or rhythmic or harmonic pattern (3). If, however, there remains, even in the most violent

passages, a kind of detachment, a feeling of objective exploration, it should not be imagined that all Monk offers is a series of abstractions. It is his achievement that in following such a path he created jazz which balances the rival claims of surprise and inevitability. Such music, to quote Brassai again, is "a rebellion against the misdeeds of a mechanised civilisation" (i), but also shows the artist, at an extreme pitch of technical and psychic tension, coming to terms with violence and disorder in the self and in the public world; indeed, that presumably is what its reconciliation of opposites is really about.

Monk's best jazz has, then, a more substantial intellectual content than most, and, while it would be naive to imagine that lessens its power to move us, this world is not the easiest to enter. The private, self-contained nature of his music, its strange, mineral toughness, make it hard to grasp, and help explain the disproportionate popularity of a relatively untypical piece like Round about midnight. It may also account for undue emphasis on the humour in his work. A sharp wit, as ever manifesting itself in directly musical terms, is clear in such things as his caricature of Tea for two, with sophisticated bitonal harmony countered with deliberately stiff rhythms. But whenever we saw Monk at the piano he presented that admirable and, in the jazz world, rare spectacle of a serious artist wholly possessed by the urgency of the matter in hand, the creation of music. Humour was evident in his eccentric platform demeanour—away from the instrument—which, however offhand, clearly aimed if not to amuse then at least to dis­concert. This may be regarded as a characteristically oblique com­ment on the social isolationism and outright rejection of the audience practised by other musicians of his generation, such as Charlie Parker. With typical parochialism, the jazz community believed the boppers' attitude to be unique, and uniquely reprehensible, while, as Monk's very dryness implies, it was a mild gesture compared, say, with the cubist painters' hermeticisation of content several decades earlier in protest against a commercialised academic tradition.

It is a deceptive simplification to say that we get the art we need and deserve, yet it may be that Monk was a little like the court jesters of old, who clothed their home-truths in just sufficient foolery. Whenever we saw him, the stiff-limbed, ungainly movements and bland smile appeared to be those of a buffoon, yet the harsh rhythms and acidulated dissonance of the music he played us said something altogether different (4).”

Jazz Journal, June 1961, as quoted on pages 28-31 of Max Harrison, A Jazz Retrospect, New York: Crescendo Publishing, 1976.


1   Andre Brassai: Graffiti (Stuttgart, 1960).
Stanley Dance:  'Towards Criteria' in Jazzbook 1947 edited by Albert McCarthy (London, 1947).
3  Certain of these "specific ideas" are helpfully illuminated by some of Andre Hodeir's treatments of Monk themes, which are in effect musical   instead   of  verbal   commentaries.   Instances   are   his variations on Mysterioso titled Osymetrios /and // (American Philips PHM2OO-O73)   and   his   atomisation   of Round  about   midnight (American Epic LN3376).
4  Further reading: Lucien Malson: Les Maitres du Jazz (Paris, 1952; rev. ed. 1972); Gunther Schuller: 'Thelonious Monk', Jazz Review, November 1958; Max Harrison: 'Thelonious Monk' in Just Jazz 3 edited by Sinclair Traill (London, 1959); Grover Sales: 'Monk at the Black Hawk', Jazz, Winter  1960; Nat Hentoff:  Thelonious Monka List of Compositions Licenced by B.M.I. (New York, 1961); Nat Hentoff:  The Jazz Life (New York,  1961); Andre Hodeir: Toward Jazz (New York, 1962); Wilfrid Mellers: Music in a New Found Land (London, 1964); Max Harrison: entry on Monk in Jazz on Record edited by Albert McCarthy (London, 1968); Jack Cooke: entry on Monk in Modern Jazz: the Essential Records 7945-70 edited by Max Harrison (London, 1975).

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