- Monk's Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making
In the 1940s Thelonious Monk was house pianist at a small nightclub called Minton's Playhouse, at 118th St. and Saint Nicholas Avenue in Harlem, New York City. There Monk and other jazz musicians such as drummer Kenny Clarke, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and saxophonist Charlie Parker, among others, forged the new bebop style that contrasted with the big band swing especially popular in the previous decade. Minton's shut its doors in 1974 and its neon sign remained unplugged until 2006, when a local entrepreneur reopened the venue as the Uptown Lounge at Minton's. In recent years Harlem has been experiencing what some are calling another renaissance, spurred by residential and business redevelopment. It is a renaissance, the manager of the building housing Minton's said, that "would not be complete without the comeback of this important cultural venue."1 The vanguard of modern jazz, however, was incorporated into the mainstream history of the music long ago, and Monk's work belongs to the canon of standard repertory. The Uptown Lounge, meanwhile, is part of the New Harlem, in which a fascinating mixture of nostalgia for the neighborhood's past as a hotbed of free-spirited cultural activity is combined with civic-minded programming, such as the "Minton's Mentors" initiative, which is dedicated to sharing awareness "of the role of jazz as the major indigenous musical genre of the United States through a variety of community-oriented and educational programs" (see http://www.uptownatmintons.com).
The ways in which the past can be present in contemporary experiences of [End Page 258] jazz, and the processes by which certain composers and their music are canonized, classicized, or institutionalized in narratives about "America's greatest art form" and the like, are the overarching concerns of ethnomusicologist Gabriel Solis's Monk's Music. Specifically, Solis asks how the once "enigmatic and controversial" Thelonious Monk has "survived as a presence in the music" (3–4). He seeks to understand how jazz musicians exercise "a historical imagination" as a "fundamental part of discourse and musical practice" (5). Solis holds that Monk's performances, as well as contemporary musicians' performances of his work, "express a way of integrating past and present in their music and their lives" (6). He wants to inject insights about the lived experience of contemporary social life gained from ethnographic research into a literature that until relatively recently was predominantly concerned with matters of aesthetics, expressivity, improvisation, and style, and into a music setting characterized in part by an overdetermined relationship with the past.
Adapting Antonio Gramsci's praxis-based theory of historiography, in which "historically subjective truth" replaces the false notion of "objective truth," Solis threads a needle between a kind of historical materialism—the notion that it is possible to know, for example, who Monk the person "actually" was—and post-structuralist textualism—that is, how variously positioned subjects conceptualize Monk based on their readings of "a collection of stories, performances, recordings, interviews and so forth"(8).2 This he accomplishes by integrating discourse about Monk and Monk's music that he collected in interviews with pianists Fred Hersch, Danilo Perez, Jessica Williams, and Randy Weston, as well as saxophonist Steve Lacy, and trombonist Roswell Rudd, among other musicians, with musical analysis in an examination of Monk's living legacy. Citing Christopher Small, Solis wants to maintain a notion of music as a practice in which its meanings are "always to some degree contingent upon the circumstances of its performance" (12).
Monk's biography is thus sketched out in the mere nine pages comprising chapter 1, while chapter 2, "Hearing Monk," is focused on understanding why the composer's music has held "intense fascination for so many musicians for more than thirty years" (59). Solis examines how musicians have understood and admired Monk's approach to several structural elements of...