Arts & Culture » Books



by William Bulkley

Monk clunked at the box, his fingers, fists and elbows raining quirky dissonance from the keyboard, angry, crying, laughing, screaming, yet, at the utmost, swinging, swinging all the way. The room hushed, every ear straining not to miss one decibel of the whirling, twisting, pulsating complexity. Awe-inspiring. Oddball genius hunched, a grand extension of the grand instrument, the Russian hat pulled low over sweaty ears, stiff-fingering the keys into dazzling spheres of oblique melodies.

The long-ashed Salem forgotten in my hand, sitting 10 feet away, transfixed by the hypnotic voyaging of the virtuoso’s meandering originality, swinging all the way, foot pumping.

Then, the room breaking into a thunderclap of applause, his story told. Up on his feet, now, a black giant of a man in resplendent attire, somberly jitterbugging to the syncopation, as Charlie Rouse slides into the clean spotlight, his golden axe beginning his own story, hip staccato riffs from his teen years, the drummer and skinny bassist in the pocket, wedded as one in the spell of birthing his maiden flight.

The Five Spot. Spinning, swinging, swelling, pulsating: glad I’d chosen to vacation in the Big Apple where the real hipness was – vibrating, oscillating, dazzling the head with all its glory.

Remembering the Bluebird, the West End in the Motor City where the young masters Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan, Donald Byrd, the boppish Paul Chambers, my buddy Barry Harris, Yusef Lateef woodshedded and honed their chops before splashing big on the big scene where all the hipness was.

My man, Roland, remembering too, criss-cross from me, being cool, lying, telling the fox at his elbow he was a doctor, wanting to get in her drawers. But who could blame him? Not I, head buzzing with the sounds, drink and a little puff before coming, arms itching to enfold Gloria in a spirited embrace, absorbed beside me, a component of this splendid happening and all.

Blow, Monk, blow! Forget your loneliness, your suffering, your early rejection. Forget your bouts with inner demons and hospitalizations; forget your buddy, Bud Powell, crazy with alcohol, dying in Paris; forget Bird, dead at 35 from too much junk. Remember the glorious Duke, your early inspiration. Remember twilight with Nellie, mother of beautiful children., Remember the eccentric sounds cascading from the box. Remember Sojourner, Harriet, Douglass, Martin, Malcolm. Tell the story. Tell your story. Blow, Monk, blow!

Oblivious to the crowd, eyes shuttered, his right hand tinkles the keys as the bass walks all over the room; then, wham! an elbow splatters the harmony into a tale of atonal laughable kinkiness.

"Straight, No Chaser," a brisk, bristling essay of foot-pumping bop, making all the sense in the drunken world. "Epistrophy," its stark, absolute statement enclosing twisting chords and bending notes, a probing vehicle for the soul of why and how. "Ruby, My Dear," a haunting, indescribable fantasia of melancholy, touching, ever so touching.

The set over, the master’s maroon orbs glazing over the resounding applause, up on their feet; then, twisting the diamond on his pinkie, exiting the stage.

Wow! Too much! Much too much!

Outside, the balmy Village night air separating us, the wannabe doctor and his fox going their way, Gloria and I ours. The propelling, graffiti-filled subway trip back uptown, the ride’s click-clack a poor mimic of the pulsating force left behind: t-monk, t-monk, t-monk. Not talking, the spellbinding experience still lingering.

The four flight climb up to her apartment. Then, seeing the hard tiled living room floor where I’d slept the last two nights. Can I sleep in the bed tonight? She shakes her head. But remember Monk. The 15-dollar cover. Remember the indescribable Thelonious Monk. She nods yes.

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