Manhattan Center hosts a tribute to Thelonious Monk

January 29, 2008

On Saturday, just about three and a half months past the bebop founder’s 90th birthday, an impressive cross-section of New York’s jazz world gathered to celebrate Thelonious Monk. Watching a jazz band on a ballroom stage is never quite as affecting as seeing the glow of your tabletop candle reflect off the curve of a saxophone just feet away, but the sheer quality and passion of the evening was enough to hold my attention. The bill of artists, some of whom had played with Herbie Hancock and Max Roach or earned titles at the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition, all appeared equally eager to impress. Carolyn Leonhart’s vocals in How I Wish were soulful enough to send a tingle into one’s stomach, and trumpet players Ambrose Akinmusire and Jean Caze showed off segments of impressive unison. In one of the evening’s most spirited moments, drummer T.S. Monk lent a pop edge to his beats with a confidence reminiscent of his father.

Host Bill Cosby likened the moment when he first heard Monk’s music to other historical ‘where were you’-dates. “Get the piano, I’m going into showbusiness,” he recalled saying to his mother–right after he had finished laughing at one of Monk’s merciless solos. While the memory contained a conscious self-awareness of Cosby’s status as a pop culture icon, it also provided a welcome reminder of Monk’s larger-scale cultural influence. Music aficionados like to prevent that it isn’t true, but his name and legacy still aren’t universally recognized among non-jazz listeners.

One depressing example: I’m yet to find a newspaper review of Saturday’s show.


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