Song composed by Thelonious Monk
Performed by the Thelonious Monk Septet
I never knew how much I loved jazz until I heard Thelonious Monk. Growing up, the radio waves were saturated with pop music, either current or generational. Sure Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong sometimes appeared on television, but the radio was where the music was. In the pre-digital tuning days, every station that approached listen-ability became a notch in the memory to be treasured. No one played Monk or Coltrane or Parker, let alone Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker,… Herbie Hancock had to wait to cross over and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s popularity was a distant memory.
Sure, college brought a lot more music to my ears, but nothing like what happened when I moved to the big city. Maybe it was the Eighties, but everything suddenly played through the car stereo. And there was that sound, off-kilter, making you beg for the next handful of keys placed perfectly over the rhythm. The melodies repeated and changed and returned and held the ear. If there was so much to hear in this one song, then what else did this guy do? Was this what they meant by jazz? Who else plays like this? Or not like this (since no one did) but with as much thought and passion?
I had the privilege of seeing Dizzy Gillespie perform live twice before he died and both performances were stunning in the energy that he brought to the stage as well as the way that he could hold the audience in his hand. He was an extrovert on that stage. All the film that I have seen of Monk indicate the exact opposite to be his case. For better or worse, I must have known that before I ever saw those clips because I never envisioned myself in a crowd listening to Monk’s music. At most two or three of us sat around listening to the records, but mostly they were records to hear when you wanted to sit back and think and feel.
Crepuscule for Nellie must be the perfect tune for a smoky nightclub in Paris sometime after midnight when the first drinks are wearing off and it’s time to find an empty chair to rest a foot on. Monk wrote some of the greatest jazz songs, taking the magic of Ellington and Armstrong and so many others and running it through the prism that was his mind. I once thought it would be impossible for anyone to play those songs as well, but his art remains open to brilliant interpretation.
Art exists to prove us wrong. When we feel complacent, cocksure, or lazy, the best art calls to us and makes us reevaluate how we are spending our time, how we are thinking about the world around us, and where we see the boundaries of our lives. Crepuscule for Nellie felt like a message from an artist to a lonely young man telling him that there was more to life than he imagined in his petty philosophy. Perhaps it was time to leave that room.
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 290 more to go.
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