Great Encounters #56: What Thelonious Monk told Bob Dylan about music

May 3rd, 2019

 

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 “Great Encounters” are book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons. In this edition, Bob Dylan recalls what Thelonious Monk told him about music at New York’s Blue Note  club in c. 1961.  This story is excerpted from Dylan’s 2004 book Chronicles: Volume One

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Bob Dylan, 1961 Thelonious Monk, 1961

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Editor’s note:  The “Van Ronk” in the excerpt is Dave Van Ronk, the influential folk singer described by Dylan as “king of the street” in Greenwich Village.

The “Ray” in the excerpt is Ray Gooch, a man Dylan described as “maybe ten years older than me,” a “nonconformist, a nonintegrator, and a Southern nationalist” who was “cool as pie, hip from head to toe, a Maltese kitten, a solid viper – always hit the nail on the head,” and who lived “like a character from out of some of the songs I’d been singing, someone who had seen life, done deeds and lived romances.”  Gooch’s literary and record collection served as a rich cultural wellspring for Dylan.

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Excerpted from Chronicles: Volume One

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Bob Dylan

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…..When I wasn’t staying at Van Ronk’s, I’d usually stay at Ray’s place, get back sometime before dawn, mount the dark stairs and carefully close the door behind me.  I shoved off into the sofa bed like entering a vault.  Ray was not a guy who had nothing on his mind.  He knew what he thought and he knew how to express it, didn’t make room in his life for mistakes.  The mundane things in life didn’t register with him.  He seemed to have some golden grip on reality, didn’t sweat the small stuff, quoted the Psalms and slept with a pistol near his bed…

…..There were no Ritchie Valens records up at Ray’s place…Mostly, it was classical music and jazz bands.  Ray had bought his entire record collection from a shyster lawyer who was getting divorced.  There were Bach fugues and Berlioz symphonies – Handel’s Messiah and Chopin’s A-Major Polonaise.  Madrigals and religious pieces, Darius Milhaud violin concertos – symphonic poems by virtuoso pianists, string serenades with themes that sound like polka dances.  Polka dances always got my blood pumping.  That was the first type of loud, live music I’d ever heard.  On Saturday nights the taverns were filled with polka bands.  I also liked the Franz Liszt records – liked the way one piano could sound like a whole orchestra.  Once I put on Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata – it was melodic, but then again, it sounded like a lot of burping and belching and other bodily functions.  It was funny – sounded almost like a cartoon.  Reading the record jacket, I learned that Beethoven had been a child prodigy and he’d been exploited by his father and that Beethoven distrusted all people for the rest of his life.  Even so, it didn’t stop him from writing symphonies.

…..I’d listen to a lot of jazz and bebop records, too.  Records by George Russell or Johnny Cole, Red Garland, Don Byas, Roland Kirk, Gil Evans – Evans had recorded a rendition of “Ella Speed,” the Leadbelly song.  I tried to discern melodies and structures.  There were a lot of similarities between some kinds of jazz and folk music.  “Tattoo Bride,” “A Drum Is a Woman,” “Tourist Point of View” and “Jump for Joy” – all by Duke Ellington – they sounded like sophisticated folk music.  The music world was betting bigger every day.  There were records by Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Art Farmer and amazing ones by Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman.  If I needed to wake up real quick, I’d put on “Swing Low Sweet Cadillac” or “Umbrella Man” by Dizzy Gillespie.  “Hot House” by Charlie Parker was a good record to wake up to.  There were a few souls around who had heard and seen Parker play and it seemed like he had transmitted some secret essence of life to them.  “Ruby, My Dear” by Monk was another one.  Monk played at the Blue Note on 3rd Street with John Ore on bass and the drummer Frankie Dunlop.

…..Sometimes he’d be in there in the afternoon sitting at the piano all alone playing stuff that sounded like Ivory Joe Hunter – a big half-eaten sandwich left on top of the piano.  I dropped in there once in the afternoon, just to listen – told him that I played folk music up the street.  “We all play folk music,” he said.  Monk was in his own dynamic universe even when he dawdled around.  Even then, he summoned magic shadows into being.

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Excerpted from Chronicles: Volume One

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Bob Dylan

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