The Five Spot Café, a club located in New York City’s Bowery neighborhood, was the site of a six month gig for the quartet of Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, drummer Shadow Wilson, and bassist Wilbur Ware. This engagement — coming on the heels of Monk’s cabaret card reinstatement — marked the merging of two of the most original voices in American music, Monk and Coltrane, in a space where cheap beer and good music attracted some of the city’s most influential artists and writers. Regulars included Larry Rivers, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg.
In Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, author Robin D.G. Kelley quotes Five Spot co-owner Joe Termini remembering the impact Monk’s quartet had on his club: “Once we hired Monk, all of a sudden the place was crowded every night. And frankly, in the beginning, I just didn’t understand any of it.”
Monk would often stand while hearing the band play, and, Kelley writes, “sometimes he’d dance to the bar, order a drink, and shuffle his way back to the bandstand….The writers and artists in the audience declared virtually every aspect of Monk’s performance ‘avant-garde.’ Monk’s dance, for example, was seen as a spectacular example of modern performance art in an age when expression of bodily pleasure and excess became central to conceptual art. Fans lined up outside the Five Spot for the music as well as a chance to catch Monk dance and whatever ‘eccentric’ behavior he was rumored to exhibit.”
And the musical ideas, according to Down Beat critic Dom Cerulli, who attended one of the shows early in the engagement, were “astounding…Thelonious was quite excited about his group….They appear to be digging each other, and to be quite intent on building something with the group.” Building it didn’t come easy. Kelley writes that Coltrane struggled with Monk’s music, and that “every song with Monk was a challenge.” “You have to be awake all the time,” Coltrane said. “You never know exactly what’s going to happen.”
Not knowing what was going to happen with Monk carried over from the bandstand into the kitchen as well. Kelley writes that Five Spot co-owner Iggy Termini “found Monk’s onstage dancing strange though harmless. ‘But sometimes after he was through dancing, he’d wander into the kitchen and start talking to the dishwasher about God knows what.’ And occasionally he’d wander right out the door. One night, Joe Termini found him a few blocks away staring at the moon. He asked Monk if he was lost. ‘No, I ain’t lost. I’m here,’ he replied matter-of-factly. ‘The Five Spot’s lost.'”
Monk and Coltrane play “Nutty,” recorded at the Five Spot in 1957