Behind Monk's Genius
In 1940’s New York, jazz had evolved into a more rebellious and expressive style of music called bebop. Discordant and extremely modernist, bebop was an artform born out of post World War II dystopia and moved away from the mainstream of popular music. This divergence attracted an eclectic fan base and a small group of virtuosos that thrived on improvisation and the idea of music for listening rather than for dancing. Thelonious Monk was one such artist, and created a legacy as one of the most influential forerunners of bebop in history.
The source of Monk’s genius likely came from a multitude of sources, but according to Robin Kelley the San Juan Hill community where he grew up was one of the most significant factors to his success. San Juan Hill was so named due to “its reputation for violence” (Kelley, 16); in fact, “between 1900 and 1917, the place was famous for its race riots” (Kelley, 17). The neighborhood was deeply embroiled in a consuming race war. This disturbing trend of violence continued until just before 1922, when there was a mass exodus from San Juan Hill and to Harlem. By the time the Monks moved to the community, the population was still most black but there was also a wide variety of cultures and ethnicity that had previously been absent. This melting pot of different backgrounds made San Juan Hill a community filled with “porters, domestic servants, laundresses, longshoremen, cooks, chauffeurs, delivery men, truck drivers, [and] a surprising number of musicians” (Kelley, 18). Languages of all types such as French, Spanish, Yiddish, and Italian were often spoken amongst the streets; Monk was exposed to a remarkable amount of diversity from a very young age. In addition, the community boasted the largest collection of black musicians before the Harlem Renaissance. For example, a local jazz musician who had the greatest influence on Thelonious was Alberta Simmons, who “would teach him a variety of stride piano techniques and help him develop his left hand” (Kelley, 27). This influence, combined with the invaluable time Monk spent at the Columbus Hill Neighborhood center, was according to Kelley what led to his remarkable genius. The Columbus Hill center was a safe haven for children from the West Side, and allowed them the opportunity to explore interests such as athletics, art, and social interaction amongst their peers.
Monk was fortunate enough to enjoy a supportive community not only at the center, but also at home. His mother Barbara was a figure of strength and stability throughout his young life, and “raised her children with very strong morals.. she kept her children in line by relying on reason, faith, example, and her quiet, dignified strength” (Kelley, 22). Not only that, she also tried to “introduce her children to the city’s rich cultural life” (Kelley, 22) by frequently taking them to Central Park in the summer to see musical performances. With influences such as these, Monk, like all of his young peers, “became a kind of cultural hybrid” (Kelley, 23).
The saying “Jazz is New York, man!?" can be understood in the context of the San Juan Hill experience. Jazz was a product of some of the most degenerate communities in the nation, which happened to offer an exceptional melting pot of different cultures. Communities such as San Juan Hill and the greater New York presented environments such as these. As Monk describes it, “every block is a different town...you go in the next block and you’re in another country” (Kelley, 19). Jazz brought these communities together due to its amazing ability to inspire improvisation and collaboration from its performers, and in this way New York and jazz become almost synonymous ideas.The relationship between jazz and the San Juan Hill community is very similar to its relationship with Leimert Park. For example, Leimert Park also offered community centers such as 5th Street Dicks Coffee House and The World Stage. Through this collaborative effort, the residents of the community had an opportunity to separate themselves from the violence of their surroundings and to enjoy art. Both neighborhoods found in jazz a sanctuary from violence and a powerful form of expression that brought people together.
An individual is a combination of both nature and nurture. Artists and musicians of all kinds may possess a certain predisposition for music and the visual arts, but it is their surroundings that determine how these skills manifest. Thelonious Monk grew up in a supportive and highly diverse community that encouraged him to explore his artistic talents and to escape from the violence of his surroundings. Without this influence, he likely would never have discovered his love for jazz music, and would never have gone on to become one of the most influential bebop musicians of all time. After witnessing several examples such as these, it is my belief that jazz and its artists are direct products of the community from which they are born.