On the occasion of Thelonious Monk’s birthday (he would have been 104 today), I’m sharing a chapter from my upcoming book written for 5th to 9thgraders and beyond. After you read it, comb through your record/CD/ iTunes collection and play one of your old Monk recordings. And if you have to shamefacedly admit that you don’t have any, get beyond the mild guilt I’m throwing at you and start listening now. It’s never too late to do the right thing and listening to Monk is always the right thing!
A man with the unusual name of Thelonious Monk and a woman with the unusual name of the Baroness Pannonica “Nica” De Koenisgwarter were driving together through Wilmington, Delaware when Thelonious asked to stop to get a drink of water from a motel bathroom. As he got back into the car, a policeman came by and asked him some questions. When Monk didn’t answer, Nica explained that he wasn’t feeling well. As she and Monk drove on, the policeman followed. Because Nica was a white woman and Thelonious a black man, the policeman decided to make trouble for them. He pulled them over and demanded that Monk get out of the car. “Why should I?” he answered and refused to move. The police called for back-up and when they arrived, they pulled him by force out of the car. Monk grabbed on to the door handles and they started beating on his hands with billy clubs. His hands!
It’s important to understand that Monk was a piano player and his hands were his life. They were also his gift to the world. In fact, Nica first heard about Monk through a recording. She was on her way to the airport to fly back to her home in Europe when she stopped to visit a friend who played a Monk album for her. She was so enchanted by the sounds that she listened to it twenty times in a row and missed her plane. In fact, she never went home again but was determined to find this man who could play such beautiful music. It took her six years to find him and they became friends for life.
The police continued to beat Monk and then arrest him for “resisting arrest.” They then illegally searched the car and found some marijuana, a mild drug legal now but illegal then. Nica claimed it was hers, wanting to protect Monk even at the risk of she herself being deported. The case was eventually dismissed because of the illegal search and Monk’s hands and body recovered from the brutal police beating. But this was just the beginning of further trouble.
In order to work in the small clubs in New York, musicians needed something called a “cabaret card.” Twice before, police had unjustly taken away that card and left him struggling to work for years. At the time of this incident, it had been re-instated, but even thought he was falsely arrested and not convicted of any crime, they took it away again. Aching from the injustice of it all and the prospect of again not being allowed to work in New York, he fell into a deep depression, couldn’t sleep, lost his appetite and eventually checked into the psychiatric ward of a hospital.
Luckily for the world, he did finally recover, resumed composing, recording and giving concerts. Some of them were benefit concerts for organizations working for social justice. He was once invited by a high school student to give a concert in Palo Alto, a city that at that time was troubled by deep racial strife. He accepted and both black and white people sat together in the audience, unified by his music. He used those hands that were hammered by policemen’s clubs to bring happiness to the world. In his own words:
“I know my music can help bring people together, and that’s what is important. I think that jazz is the thing that has contributed the most to the idea that one day the word ‘friendship’ may really mean something in the United States.”