William Gottlieb’s “Elusive Pianist”

June 1st, 2018

Thelonious Monk, September, 1947

photo by William Gottlieb




Jazz photography has played an important role in the development of jazz, and, along with the art found on the record albums of the 1940’s – 60’s, is a visual window into the history of the culture.  The work of photographers like Herman Leonard, William Claxton and Lee Tanner impacted me pretty deeply, and led me deep into the record bins in search of the music they so effectively portrayed.  Leonard and Tanner, in fact, were major influences on my work on this site, and Tanner was indeed a personal mentor whose voice of encouragement remains in my head long after his 2013 passing.

Among the first interviews I ever did was in 1997 with William Gottlieb, best known as a photographer but who only came into that field when the Washington Post — for whom he wrote a jazz column — determined they could no longer pay for a photographer to accompany his column.  At that time, Gottlieb purchased a camera and took pictures, mostly of musicians performing within the nightclubs of New York. 

While I seem to have temporarily misplaced the interview, I remember the telephone conversation and our subsequent meeting at his film studio in New York well.  He was a sincere gentleman with cherished experiences he openly shared of Dizzy, Ellington, Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Goodman, Ella, and so many others he was touched by — including, of course, Thelonious Monk, who he referred to as the “elusive pianist” and “genius of bop” in his September 24, 1947 Downbeat column describing not only Monk’s role in creating “be-bop,” but also the scene at Minton’s and those who worked there with Monk.  This was around the time that bop was being disparaged as “unlistenable” and “undanceable,” even called “Chinese Music” by the likes of Cab Calloway, and Monk was among its most controversial and mysterious figures.

Gottlieb’s historic piece follows…





Cover of the September 24, 1947 Downbeat






Thelonious Monk – Genius of Bop


 September 24, 1947

By William Gottlieb





     New York – I have interviewed Thelonious Sphere Monk.

     It’s not like having seen Pinetop spit blood or delivering the message to Garcia.  But, on the other hand, it’s at least equal to a scoop on the true identity of Benny Benzedrine or on who killed Cock Robin.

     Thelonious, the George Washington of be-bop, is one elusive gent.  There’s been much talk about him – about his pioneering role at Minton’s, where Bebop began…about his fantastic musical imagination…about his fine piano playing.  But few have ever seen him; except for people like Diz and Mary Lou, I didn’t know anyone else who had seen very much of him, either.

     Come to think of it, I had seen him once, at the club where Dizzy’s band was working some time ago.  Even without his music, which was wonderful, you could recognize his cult from his be-bop uniform:  goatee, beret and heavy shell glasses, only his were done half in gold.

     I listened in fascination until he got up from the keyboard.  “And who,” I finally inquired, “was that bundle of bop?”

     “Why, Thelonious Monk.”

     But by that time the quarry had disappeared. 




     Finally, through the good offices of Mary Lou Williams, I was arranged with Thelonious.  In order to take some pictures in the right setting, we went up to Minton’s Playhouse at 208 W. 118th St.

     In the taxi, on the way up, Thelonious spoke with singular modesty.  He wouldn’t go on record as insisting HE started be-bop; but, as the story books have long since related, he admitted he was at least one of the originators.  Yes, he continued, verifying the oft told tale, it all began up at Minton’s in early 1941.

     Orchestra leader Teddy Hill had broken up his great orchestra because of problems brought on by the draft, poor transportation facilities and the like.  He had bought into the tavern owned by Morris Milton (who had been the first colored delegate to the New York local of the musicians’ union).  Teddy eventually took over active management and instituted a policy of good music. 




     As a starter, Teddy called together some of the boys who had played in his last band, including John Birks Gillespie (by then with Calloway), and Joe Guy, trumpets, and Kenny Clarke, drums.  There was also Nick Fenton on bass.  Monday night was the big night at Minton’s.  Bandleaders like Goodman, Dorsey and Johnny Long would come in to visit.  And practically every jazz man of merit in town sat in at one time or other.  Charlie Parker, who had come to New York with the Jay McShann ork, appeared often and became a regular at Minton’s.

     “Be-bop wasn’t developed in any deliberate way,” continued Thelonious.  “For my part, I’ll say it was just the style of music I happened to play.  We all contributed ideas, the men you know plus a fellow named Vic Coulsen, who had been with Parker and Al Hibbler in the McShann band.  Vic had a lot do with our way of phrasing.”




     “If my own work had more importance than any others, it’s because the piano is the key instrument in music.  It think all styles are built around piano developments.  The piano lays the chord foundation and the rhythm foundation, too.  Along with bass and piano, I was always at the spot, and could keep working on the music.  The rest, like Diz and Charlie, came in only from time to time, at first.”

     By the time we’d gotten that far, we arrived at Minton’s where Thelonious headed right for the piano. Roy Eldridge, Teddy Hill and Howard McGhee dropped around.  McGhee, fascinated, got Thelonious to dream up some trumpet passages and then conned Thelonious into writing them down on some score sheets that happened to be in the club.




     Teddy Hill began to talk.  Looking at Thelonious Monk, he said:

     “There, my good man, is the guy who deserves the most credit for starting be-bop.  Though he won’t admit it, I think he feels he got a bum break in not getting some of the glory that went to others.  Rather than go out now and have people think he’s just an imitator, Thelonious is thinking up new things.  I believe he hopes one day to come out with something as far ahead of bop as bop is ahead of the music that went before it.

     “He’s so absorbed in his task he’s become almost mysterious.  Maybe he’s on the way to meet you.  An idea comes to him.  He begins to work on it.  Mop!  Two days go by and he’s still at it.  He’s forgotten all about you and everything else but that idea.”

     While he was at it, Teddy told me about Diz, who worked in his band following Roy Eldridge.  Right off, John Birks G. showed up at rehearsal and began to play in an overcoat, hat and gloves!  For a while, everyone was set against this wild maniac.  Teddy nicknamed him Dizzy.




     But he was Dizzy like a fox.  “When I took my band to Europe, some of the guys threatened not to go if the frantic one went, too.  But it developed that youthful Dizzy, with all his eccentricities and practical jokes, was the most stable man of the group.  He had unusually clean habits and was able to save so much money that he encouraged the others to borrow from him so that he’d have an income in cast things got rough back in the states!”



Thelonious Monk, Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge and Teddy Hill

Outside Minton’s Playhouse, New York

September, 1947

photo by William Gottlieb





Click here to view the William P. Gottlieb Collection at the Library of Congress


“On 52nd Street — The Jazz Photography of William Gottlieb,” a lecture by Frank Goodyear




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