Everyone has an initiation story and some version of mine may seem familiar, but I want to begin this blog with how my early jazz experiences obliquely opened a door to poetry. During the summer of 1961 I was a prisoner of the suburbs, shipped out to an inverse Siberia on Long Island, light years away from my Brooklyn neighborhood. I hated the suburbs then and hate them now for obvious reasons: they’re parochial, isolated, materialistic, high on status and low on diversity. Most of my Black and Puerto Rican friends had been left behind in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Glen Cove was divided into three discrete sections: Italian, African-American, and Jewish. Most of the Jews, like my parents, were high-holiday Jews for whom a Bar Mitzvah was a crowning achievement and an elegy to ceremony (virtually my only suburban experience of ritual).
But my friend Allen Sandler offered me an escape route. One Friday night, a month or so after Allen had introduced me to Ahmad Jamal (somehow he had also obtained a warped copy of MEET THE BEATLES when the album had only been released in the UK), we took the LIRR to wander around the East Village. The whole milieu spoke to me for what we now call its alternative culture: black turtlenecks and jeans replaced the button-down shirts and my classmates’ obsession with Brooks Brothers clothing. Blacks and whites held hands. Male gay couples at least kissed. Bob Dylan was playing at the Café Wha right next door to the Café Wha Not? But it was at the Five Spot Café at the corner of Saint Marks Place where, with my phony ID, I received my primary education. The plaster was held up with stapled record covers and you could sit at the bar for three and a half bucks. I only owned two albums: Miles Davis’ KIND OF BLUE and Erroll Garner’s CONCERT BY THE SEA, but that summer I saw in person Monk, Mingus, Rollins, and Raashan Roland Kirk. And on the other side of the Village Coltrane was playing with Eric Dolphy. Coltrane was too far ahead of me back then (I’m just catching up now), but Monk changed me. His style, his talking to himself, his walking around the piano when Charlie Rouse soloed, his using three unpredictable notes where some pianists might use twenty with trills, seemed to me an act of magic.Though I’d been to museums and concerts, this was my first internalized experience of art.
He walked on to the small stage in his fur hat and raincoat maybe a half hour late (no one could compete with Mingus in his full length pea green army jacket: he always kept us waiting at least an hour for the first set and then growled at everyone,including members of his band). Monk played original tune after original tune; retrospectively I believe I was drawn both to what we call his minimalism and his dissonant harmonies, his meter and tone shifts, his irony and wit. His saxplayer, Charlie Rouse, like Lester Young, played a little behind the beat, as if he considering what chord changes might come next. What stuck with me through all these years about him? Rouse’s solos were so thoughtful, so “composed,” I felt like was privileged to his process as he made up his next series of phrases and runs. He seemed to make visible the mind in motion. The method might have provided the only way he could keep fresh Monk’s dozen (great) tunes (”Epistrophy,” “Round Midnight,” “Well, You Needn’t,”“Evidence,“”Ruby, My Dear,” ”Pannonica,””Crepuscule With Nellie,” “Blue Monk,”and“Coming on the Hudson”) they played night after night. I know now he helped point me to the act of paying attention, to the power of listening – after all, that’s what his hesitations signified. Listening! To the others in the group, to the notes he’d just played. And the sophisticated audience would snap their fingers or clap after a good solo, they’d shout encouragement to the saxophonist working through some challenging fingering. They were not clapping politely. They were alive, and we were all listening together. So this was imagination, improvisationat work. Modernist as he was, Monk made audible – as did much progressive jazz - the sculptural elements of music being made. This associative process, coupled with those increasingly complex beat and pulse (no longer the rigid ¾ meter of swing) led to challenging work of great feeling and constant surprise.
I carried my Monk and Mingus albums around for a while, but stumbled around, lost, through most of my college years: I didn’t read enough and when I discoveredI really wanted to write I had terrible poetry teachers. But the passion given me by a lifelong love of jazz eventually shaped my aspirations as a poet: an improvised journey, full of discoveries that didn’t need solving but needed to be lived in (most of Monk’s tunes ended before they ended, the chords unresolved). This was the way musicians like Thelonious Monk and Eric Dolphy cut through the notes with a mastery of technique (practice, practice, practice) as a vehicle to approach as directly as possible the mysteries of the heart.
Here’s a brief fragment of “Epistrophy” to get the feel of Monk: