What makes the late jazz pianist Thelonious Sphere Monk special and unique is that to find out more about him, we need to delve into the lives of other people and learn about them in order to come close to finding out more about this unique, complex and timeless musician known to be taciturn. XSNoize.com joins Youssef Daoudi on his journey to reveal to the world via the graphic novel the real, authentic and complete Thelonious Sphere Monk.
Unlike with Reinhard Kleist’s graphic novel depictions of Johnny Cash and Nick Cave (both reviewed by Xs Noize); Daoudi does not begin the journey with Monk’s early years. SIDE A (Part 1) is set at the time of the Regan presidency when the president is about to give his first press conference since his attempted assassination attempt. From the outset Daoudi demonstrates the dearth of his musical knowledge of classic artists starting with Mary Lou Williams. The clock is then turned back and we are introduced to Monk’s song “Hackensack”, recorded on 11th May 1954 at Rudy Van Gelder studios in Hackensack, New Jersey. Monk is on piano, Ray Copeland is on the trumpet, Carly Russell is on bass, Art Blakey on drums and Frank Foster is on tenor saxophone.
Daoudi then fast-forwards again to the future introducing us to an eccentric chain smoking ageing cat lady whose home is festooned with jazz records (including Monk’s), a reel to reel tape recorder and a Steinway and Sons piano. She starts to play the piano, the sound of her playing spreads across Blvd East Weehawken and abruptly awakens an elderly and asleep Monk who utters the word: “Ouch!” She concedes to him that she is “out of tune” and no one can play the piano or at least the song “Pannonica” the way he does, after all, according to her Monk is the “eighth wonder of the world”.
The following chapter is then devoted to the early life of this lady. Why? After all, this is a story about Monk, so why is Daoudi delving into her past when little is still known about Monk? This lady is none other than Kathleen Annie “Pannonica” Rothschild, known to Monk as “Pannonica” after a moth (a rare species of moth in a forest in Hungry named by the Romans as Pannonica). This name was given to Pannonica by her entomologist father. Daoudi fantastically creates imaginative illustrations in this chapter using entomology as a theme. As a young lady, like her brother she falls in love with jazz. Jazz made her feel “alive” and “free”. Jazz would help her cope with the pressures, protocols and expectations of being a Rothschild. Pannonica would finally meet Monk at his debut gig in France with Mr Mulligan and His Band in 1954. A lasting (described as platonic) friendship between them both would form. As well as Monk’s wife Nellie (who Pannonica would also befriend); Pannonica would prove to be pivotal in Monk’s life up until his death. Monk allowed Pannonica to pursue her passion for jazz; something she could not do with her husband Baron Jules De Koenigswarter who “hated jazz music”.
So having established the “Pannonica” conundrum, Daoudi spends much time showing how Monk was a unique composer, offering something different who came to be seen as “modern” and “avant-garde” and become “the High Priest of Bop”. With an unorthodox approach to the piano, he was credited for using the piano as both a “percussion and a string instrument” and a “vibraphonist” by “hitting the keys at an angle rather than in parallel” as well as using his elbow. He could do anything with music, however “the only thing that isn’t easy about (playing) “Criss-cross (song)” is keeping your feet from tapping”. This is a graphic novel and after all, every superhero has at least one weakness. Nonetheless Monk “always (left the crowd) wanting more!”
Monk who self-taught himself to read music was a keen philosopher. He asked an important question: “Does all we think and feel happen in the brain?” This led to Monk developing the science of Improvisation, “composing without preparation which leads to musical unconsciousness by shutting down “inhibitions”. Monk succeeded when he put himself in a “self-induced altered state”. Applying “certain mathematical and physical concepts” To Monk “The inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good”. Furthermore, “a piano ain’t got no wrong notes… you have to make the right mistakes!” and with 88 piano keys “there are just so many possibilities, so many combinations”. Monks winning formula was: “You play what you want and let the public pick up on what you’re doing. Even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years”.
Daoudi depicts Monk’s influence on the beatniks. Jack Kerouac is mentioned twice. This is only fair for Kerouac mentioned Monk in The Subterraneans. Like Kerouac, Monk felt that lecturing about theory and technique were not worthwhile tasks. For Monk “talking about music is like dancing about architecture. Just let them listen to the damn records!” Both men also thrived by self-learning. Unfortunately also like Kerouac Monk battled alcoholism and opioid addiction. There were also fears following Monk’s arrest in Delaware with Pannonica that Monk would commit “suicide”. However the case was dismissed; Monk rose to fame, toured the world and appeared on the front cover of TIME magazine.
The use of black, white and gold in Dadudi’s illustrations add a touch of sophistication to the novel and Monk himself. Much of Dadudi’s approach to this novel is as unexpected and unorthodox as Monk himself. Daoudi even includes the Yiddish language to offer sympathy for Pannonia following the Delaware arrest, describing her as a “nebekh (an unfortunate person)”. In spite of her status and family connections, she seldom found comfort in them. Daoudi also reveals juicy tabloid gossip like how Monk claimed to have “kicked his (Miles Davis) pretentious ass” in an exciting and captivating way. Daoudi also deftly Documents Monk’s many key achievements including his live performance at the fifth annual Newport Jazz Festival well too.
“Monk!” Is a cryptic graphic novel true to the art and genre of jazz; from the outset “Monk!” keeps the reader in suspense. Daoudi’s use of improvisation with a little melody as well as Kerouac’s “Spontaneous Prose” makes it impossible to predict what happens next. The result is a new composition offering new adventures whilst expanding the definition and function of the graphic novel.
To continue to keep feeling the beat and to keep swinging, “Monk!” Is available to buy via https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250224880