Deep Monk

Currents + | -


[These are the Liners for a new solo album, Deep Monk]

I just finished what I think will be a major release. It'll be everything I said I'd never do. Firstly, it's a tribute album, a nearly unforgivable grievance to me, as I am as iconoclastic as one can get when it comes to originality ...there's only one me. And, to exacerbate matters, it's a tribute album dedicated to the legacy and the music and the person whom I would, at other times, least likely choose to honor, Thelonious Sphere Monk, because his music seems beyond the reach of a tribute. His music is so monumental, so strikingly original, so intimate and personal, that I had promised myself to steer clear of even playing an occasional composition by him.

deep monkNot too many years ago, critics had "accused" me of sounding too much like him. I suppose my insecurity was showing in those days: I responded to the accusations by not playing his music very often, if at all. But that didn't stop the critics, those "experts" who had somehow decided that I either sounded like this or that female pianist (because, after all, female pianists must all sound alike for some reason known only to male critics) or that I sounded like Thelonious Sphere Monk because I liked the sound of inverted and flatted tenths or sharp ninths or whatever they're called (I don't know what to call any of those things ...I just play them.)

In retrospect, the critics were probably right, up to a point. About three decades ago I got so lost in his music that, at times, I started to sound like his spirit-sister. It's all I could hear for years, and I think it cost me time in the developing my own personal style. My compositions from that period are remarkably similar in structure and (a)tonality to his. And recordings of mine from that period still remind me of him. He was one of my most powerful teachers when it came to jazz - a word I've come to avoid whenever possible, a word that I'm starting to realize is as unavoidable for me as breathing - and this was long before the massive searing fire-brand of John Coltrane settled in my soul, to be later tempered by the equally colossal but gentler Glenn Gould.

That I should be torn, influence-wise, between the triple-threat described above is, in retrospect, just like me. At sixty, I can see through the veil now, or at least my own. I can understand that I wasn't looking for anything or anyone but myself. But there were questions: how do I maintain the talent I have for genuine musical wit, loving Erroll Garner as I do, while being as serious as a heart-attack (which I suppose explains my fascination and incorporation of the viscerally mind-boggling sheets of sound and soul-reaching quest of a true Seeker of God, like 'Trane) and still stay as recklessly fearless as Evil Knievel in my improvisations? After all, playing the piano perfectly is akin to living perfectly ...practically impossible when doing so at maximum potential with all the stops out and the pedal to the metal. These and other elements of personality and character helped form, over many years, my own style. It's recognizable to anyone that has an ear for music. Most people know it's me on the radio after just a few notes. It's an amalgamation of everyone I love and everyone I've been musically touched by.

Whether I like it or not, I am influenced by a trinity of three giants: John Coltrane, Glenn Gould, and yes, Thelonious Sphere Monk. Imagine finding three more disparate and dissimilar influences to absorb and synthesize.


Many years have passed since I've seen myself as a part of the "jazz world". I and it never saw eye to eye on a wide range of things, and, as I grew older and stopped participating in the "universal hang" necessary to "get gigs", I fell off the map. I stopped drinking, gave up smoking. I wrote more essays and poetry, I learned Internet protocols including HTML, and I became healthier and healthier, both mentally and physically. At the piano, I played better and better, faster and faster, and deeper than I had ever thought possible. Still the incurable optimist, I had thought that jazz was about MUSIC and that life was about GROWTH and DISCOVERY and achieving one's own highest POTENTIAL.

I still believe that, but I am continually disappointed at the reality of the "jazz world" and it's inability to organize, communicate, and stand up for a set, any set, of core values.

JWSo, disconnected from the center of jazz by the exclusionary policies of too many of its participants (mainly the promoters and recording executives, as opposed to the musicians themselves), I followed my own very clear inner muse. I wrote hundreds of pieces and recorded nearly as many discs. In my spare time I wrote articles on my Internet blog, articles with names like The Jazz Cartels and The Discriminating Gatekeepers, and watched (and listened) in muted amazement as poorly equipped, marginally talented technicians became well-known (sic) jazz stars, propelled by the money of investment bankers and bureaucratic administrators who would occasionally decide to make a CD or put on a "jazz festival", their equivalent of an alcohol-drenched barbeque, replete with scantily-clad groupies and an inner circle of politically-correct participants. Having stopped drinking and smoking so many years ago, I just didn't "fit in". The old adage "most deals are cut at the bar" may be true still, but it's an unsavory truth, and one I won't bend to.

So, when I heard people say, "I hate jazz", I'd say, "I can't blame you", because every time I turned on a jazz radio station, I was very very sorry. You can't just up and listen to Coltrane's A Love Supreme or Monk's CrissCross or Gould's Goldberg Variations and then expect to bear the play-lists concocted by radio program directors with degrees in business administration.

For awhile, "jazz" was a bad word altogether for me. The word's most obvious derivations (jis, jism, jissom) alone are off-putting. And it came, over the years of its undeniable decline, to represent discrimination, androcentric peer-bonding, cliques, and fashionable, mean-spirited "hipness", all things that make me mildly ill. Its pervasive and stubbornly persistent unwelcoming attitude towards women has always deeply disturbed me, and I had no time for any kind of prejudice, having played with Philly Joe Jones and having watched him enter venues - where he played his royal music - through their kitchen or rear service entrance. I always went in with him, through whatever door he had to go through. I loathe prejudice, and the "jazz world" allows too much of it to flourish, unchallenged. If the jazz business were Microsoft, Apple would have had a 97 percent market-share years ago.

MonkAnd then, recently, there came a day when I started to play, alone, in my house, on my concert grand. I played a lot that day, maybe 12 or 14 hours. I didn't eat. It was very late by the time I got around to playing some Monk tunes. And I'll say this without ego: no one on earth plays Monk as I do. It is all too true. Not only his compositions, which anyone with sufficient pianistic skill can do, but his style, his take on things, his view, his ear, his rhythmic lope, his train of thought, his immersion in idea, his fixation, his perplexity, his audacity, his wry (or dry) humor, his homespun blues underpinnings, his way of pausing to fall into a chord, his flat-fingering (which isn't so flat when you get to know it), his refusal to bow to sets of rules, his way of making the wrong notes right, and making the right notes sound wrong, his way of bending a note, his full and arguably over-use of whole-tone scales, his time density and mastery (you can set your watch to him), and his distaste for "perfection".

We had just moved, and the piano was just a little bit "out of tune" ...but this would not have stopped Monk from playing, nor did it stop me. This was not about the perfect sound on the perfectly tuned piano with the perfect microphone placement and the perfect pollen count. This was about finding my way back home again. This was about the music in my blood, the blood that carried the strains of The Monk, like the genetic markers of some biologically shared familial characteristic.

The first tune here, his rustic waltz "Ugly Beauty", is a good example of all that follows. It's all in the reading, all in the way you play it. It's not what you play; it's what you don't play, and the way you play what you do play. It's not all these words, that's for sure.

I don't know why it's so easy for me to do this. I never studied his - or anyone's - music. I never sat down and figured it out. I heard his chords while others couldn't. They made sense to me and I heard them. And what I can hear, I can play.

After playing his tunes for awhile, what happens to me is this: I start to apply his approach to other tunes not written by him. I can take his approach and make it mine. I think he runs deeply through everything I've played or written for the past three decades. "The Monk runs deep..." That's what someone said once. They were right. I caught a case of The Monk and I still have it. It mutates, as do all powerful viruses. It withstands time and it resists treatment. It won't go away. It's my legacy.

It's like being bitten by one of those vampires. You're his forever. You live your own life, but sometimes, when the moon is full and it's just you and that piano, you drink the blood, you do what's natural for you.

"Ah ...listen to them. Children of the Night. What beautiful music they make."

They were the Count Dracula's words, delivered with magnificent aplomb by the great Bela Lugosi. Somehow they fit here. Monk is the Count. He is thousands of years old. He is indestructible, undeniable. He is in my blood. His malarial presence is unfathomably deep in my living tissue. He runs really deep. He is Monk, and I can't deny his influence. His music is my music. Ours, all of us, but mine especially. When you have a gift like this, it can't be terminated by a thought or a word or a whole campaign. It's just time to play some Monk, whenever the time is right, whenever he beckons.

He is timeless. he lives on in me and in many others. In me, he takes on clearly audible form. He inhabits me. His blood is my blood. I will play his music 'round midnight. I am a Child of the Night.


Let it be noted that I'm fully aware that Monk is dead. Long live Monk. I am not Monk, I am me, Jessica Williams. I am one of the last of my kind as Monk was the last of his. Only those of us who lived those years and those nights know what horrible sadness and brilliant, terrible joy was in the air. We walked through fire, we breathed the intoxicating acid of our times, we - those of us who survived - will never ever be the same. We are one. Whether some virulently racist and sexist critics - or even musicians - deny the possibility, there is that Truth among us who have lived it: it was truly the Music of Freedom. There were no barriers.

It must become so again.

Years after Monk had passed away, I played a concert in San Francisco with his tenor sax player, the great Charlie Rouse (to whom my composition The House That Rouse Built was dedicated). On the resultant album, Epistrophy (on Landmark-Fantasy), I can be heard playing Blue Monk with Charlie. Weeks later, Charlie would be dead, and that album would be released as a memorial concert. I can't remember the year, nor do I want to. But I remember the day. October 10th. The day Monk was born.

And, when I joined the band of saxophone innovator Eddie Harris for awhile, our bass player just happened to be the incredible Larry Gales. He had been Monk's bassist for years! Monk and I seemed to be members of the same karass (a term coined by writer Kurt Vonnegut, meaning "an unintentional but unavoidable extended family") or at least distant relatives of some non-terrestrial sort, beyond ancestry and beyond the limits of mundane lineage.

On Deep Monk, you'll hear me sound a lot like Monk at times. It's not me trying to sound like Monk. I'm not thinking here at all. It's death to music when you think. I never once tried to "sound like Monk". It's not possible to do that. It's me being inside of Monk and of Monk being inside of me. It's that way with all of the spirits inside of me. We inhabit each other, we grow together, we share the universal song of earth; the song of life itself. It is of no concern to me whether this or that "expert" takes exception with my words here or my music there. Where there is no gift, where there is no experience, where there is no blood, where there is no love, there will always be "experts".

A friend, upon hearing Deep Monk for the first time, exclaimed, "Wow! It sounds like a 1950 Prestige recording of Monk!"

There could be no higher compliment.

This is simply my highest, most immaculate compliment to one of my greatest teachers, the true teller of tales, the man whose musical spirit will flow through my veins until I die, his blood and my blood conjoined, the one and only Thelonious Sphere Monk.

JW, 08