Excerpt: 'Alive at the Village Vanguard'

by Lorraine Gordon

Alive at the Village Vanguard

It was Ike Quebec who first took us to see Thelonious Monk. Ike didn't say about Monk: "Record him." He just said, "Come on, I want you to hear someone." Ike didn't take us to a club either, he took us to Monk's West 65th Street apartment. And Alfred and I... well, we heard him.

Monk's room was right off the kitchen. It was a room out of Vincent Van Gogh somehow - you know, ascetic - a bed, a cot, really, against the wall, a window and an upright piano. That was it.

We all sat down on Monk's narrow bed — our legs straight out in front of us, like children. I looked up for a moment and saw a picture of Billie Holiday taped to the ceiling. The door closed. And Monk, his back to us, began to play.

He had enormous hands. Those hands almost stammered, it seemed to me, right above the keys. 'Where are they going to come down?' I kept wondering. It was just riveting to watch.

There were a lot of modern musicians I didn't understand — they were fast and terrific but not comprehensible to me, necessarily. Thelonious Monk I understood. Always. Monk was a revelation. From our very first encounter he was right in my groove.

He was always working on something new. That day we heard him composing what would turn out to be "Ruby, My Dear," one of Monk's most admired signature compositions. He didn't even have a title for it yet. I just loved the melody, so much so that I can remember thinking: 'Boy, I wish he'd name it after me - call it "Sweet Lorraine" or something.' Eventually, in the course of a later visit, Thelonious did tell me that he had titled this piece "Ruby, My Dear," and I said to him, "Oh, who's Ruby?" "No-one," Thelonious answered. "I just like the name."

That day Alfred, Frank and I practically said in unison, 'Let's record this guy!'

Did Monk's records sell at first? No, they didn't sell. I went to Harlem and those record stores didn't want Monk or me. I'll never forget one particular owner, I can still see him and his store on Seventh Avenue and 125th Street. "He can't play lady, what are you doing up here? The guy has two left hands."

"You just wait," I'd say. "This man's a genius, you don't know anything."

Thelonious Monk became my personal mission. I was really fighting everyone. I mean, I went huffing and puffing around with those records and my mind was undivided. When I have something to do and want to do it, nothing fazes me. And Monk didn't faze me. I just knew the man was great.

We began to hang out with Thelonious — Alfred, Frank and I — at Monk's family home. We met his mother, his sister, his brother-in-law. Thelonious was not married yet when we first met him. We sort of became part of the Monk family.

Thelonious was so eccentric and non-verbal, I really became his mouthpiece to the public. At one point, out of sheer enthusiasm, I wrote a letter to a newspaper I admired very much at the time called PM. PM was very hip and I enjoyed reading it. I addressed this letter to the editor, Ralph Ingersoll, and described Monk to him as "a genius living here in the heart of New York, whom nobody knows."

Well, Ingersol caught my pitch. He called me and said that he was going to send Seymour Peck, one of this best writers, to do a feature on Monk. I said fine.

I remember picking up Seymour Peck somewhere in my car and driving him that day to Monk's apartment. When I started to get out of the car with him, though, Peck balked. "Where do you think you're going?" he said. "I do this alone."

"I don't think so," I said. "Thelonious is not that talkative. Without me I don't think this will work."

"Don't worry about it," said Peck." And he went on in alone.

I sat outside in my car waiting. Within five minutes, here comes Peck storming out. "There is no story there!" he shouted. "The man doesn't speak!"

"I tried to tell you," I said.

Back at work I called Ralph Ingersoll. "Look," I said. "There certainly is a story in Thelonious Monk. A big story. But either I have to be there with him or you have to send another reporter."

"Fine," Ingersoll said. And back comes Peck. This time we go in together. The result: a huge, 2-page centerfold story on Monk in PM.

What happened? With me there, Monk talked. I mean Monk talked to other musicians, to Alfred, to me. He just didn't talk to strangers. PM took pictures of the apartment, of Monk's room right off the kitchen, and a picture too of the refrigerator in the kitchen, for some reason. This fridge picture actually showed up in the article, with a caption that described the fridge as dominating the apartment. Well, Thelonious' mother got very angry with me. She said that I had embarrassed them and why did PM have to talk about the apartment? I said to her, "Look, Mrs. Monk. Your son is going to be very famous. This is just the beginning. You will have to get used to this."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.