All day long yesterday it was Monk’s birthday, and I knew it. Brushing my teeth, it was Monk’s birthday. Doing dishes: today is Monk’s birthday. Scooping cat litter — my sister introduced me to the Litter Genie (I got the name wrong for about a week, thinking is was Litter Genius), which makes dealing with cat poop less of a pain in the ass, and which every time I use I think ‘wow, some dude had this idea and made it happen,’ which it occurs to me is also the story of Thelonious Monk — anyways, as I was plopping poop into the Litter Genie, I thought about Monk.
I was at the Safeway, and it was Monk’s birthday. I don’t know where anything is at the Safeway. It’s my new grocery store. The green beans looked pretty good. I surveyed the pasta, and was delighted to find DeCecco, superior to the ubiquitous Barilla in my opinion.
Peet’s Coffee, French Roast, Whole Bean. In stock if you look for it, I discovered. (It’s Monk’s birthday, I thought, as I inventoried Safeway’s coffee selection.)
I didn’t like Monk at first. I didn’t think he could play. (Same with Eric Dolphy: I had a 3-LP anthology, “The Saxophone,” with Max Roach’s “Mendacity,” where Dolphy takes a blistering solo. Miles Davis had said of Eric Dolphy, in a blindfold test, that he played like somebody was stepping on his foot — Miles didn’t quite put it that way, but that’s how I’d remembered it — so when I heard Dolphy for the first time on that anthology I thought “Miles was right, it sounds like somebody’s stepping on his foot!”)
I was barely a teenager.
I was alone at the precise moment when I fell in love with Monk’s playing. I was living in my girlfriend’s studio apartment in Minneapolis. (I had an actual “official” roommate, my college pal Doug, in an upstairs duplex in St. Paul where I was paying rent, but I’d moved my stuff to her place and hadn’t seen Doug in months. I wasn’t ready to tell my folks I was serious about a girl, and she and I weren’t ready to specifically identify just what we were doing, which is why I was still paying rent in St. Paul.) She worked nights as a cocktail waitress at a fancy bar in downtown Minneapolis. You wouldn’t believe how much she’d bring home in tips every night.
(Another thing about that shitty studio apartment, in a crummy part of Minneapolis where she’d been mugged once walking out of a bank [she fought with the mugger and actually got one of his shoes — I told her jeezus don’t fight next time]: one time we’d turned on the oven and, as it heated up, leagues of roaches scattered from it in broad daylight, from tiny baby roaches to gigantic Abominations Unto God, and we didn’t use the oven after that. Also, it had a gas fireplace that she’d been told not to use because it didn’t work, but one winter day she tried it when the apartment was too cold and it was fine, and after that we used that illicit fireplace all winter long, making the place so steamy we’d have to open the windows, even in a Minneapolis winter. It was great.)
I had a lot of time to listen to music while waiting for her to get home from the bar, a few hours after midnight. (She’d get home after 2; I’d have to be at work in a downtown music store around 8: I have no idea how I functioned on the amount of sleep I was getting back then, but I found her very compelling and worth the wait, and drank enough coffee at work to seem lucid.)
One evening I turned to Monk. I don’t know exactly what I was listening to when I realized how wrong 13-year-old me had been about him, but it was almost certainly a live recording of the quartet with Charlie Rouse. Monk swung So Fucking Hard, he was so funny, he knew exactly what to play to tighten up his rhythm section or push shit to another level. His playing was beautiful and wise and absurd. Monk played the truth. He astonished me. I bought every damn record of his. I was smitten.
Yesterday, all day, was his birthday, and I knew it. I’ll always know it.
If I stick it out here in Colorado (it’s very beautiful, by the way) someday I’ll probably know where everything is in the Safeway.
I’m divorcing the woman who was a cocktail waitress 35 years ago. My mind is scattered, but I didn’t forget Monk’s birthday. He’s important to me. He changed my life, changed the way I play, changed the way I write.
I listened to Monk last night, and I thought about the young man I was when I fell in love with a girl and with him in that shitty studio apartment in Minneapolis. I was transitioning to a new, adult, post-college version of myself when I fell for him back then.
And once again I’m in transition.
Anyways, I toasted Monk last night with some bourbon and maybe a little weed, because it was his birthday.