Monday, February 22, 2010

"… we never knocked nobody else's music."

The above quote is from Billy Eckstine. I encountered it because, in my efforts to be a better listener to jazz, I decided to provide myself with historical context beyond what I had acquired from Robin Kelley's Thelonious Monk book. Therefore, I am currently reading Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s by Ira Gitler. Gitler provides a loose narrative framework for the individual statements he has compiled, but he says little about the reliability of his sources. He just lets those sources speak for themselves; and, when the sources contradict each other, the reader has do decide whom (if anyone) to believe.

Thus, it is a bit idealized to take Eckstein at face value and assume that, in the early days of the 52nd Street clubs, everyone had good things to say about everyone else (or at least refrained from saying nasty things). However, there are definitely stories of good will and generosity where you might not expect to find them. Thus, when Eckstein talks about starting up the band that provided a platform for Dizzy Gillespie, he described how Count Basie offered to let him use some of his own scores while that band was beginning to build up their repertoire. One might not normally associate Basie with the emergence of bop modernism; but there he was, at least in spirit.

Flash forward now from 1944 to Sunday afternoon, December 8, 1957, back in the days when CBS had a live television program called The Seven Lively Arts. The program aired on this particular date was called The Sound of Jazz. It was produced by Robert Herridge and organized by Whitney Balliett and Nat Hentoff, and it is now available in its entirety in a 2-DVD collection entitled The Greatest Jazz Films Ever. Kelley's book offers the following recollection of Monk's appearance on this program:

While Monk was doodling around with the piano during a coffee break, the stagehands, cameramen, and everybody who could hear him wandered over to the piano. Then in came Count Basie and Billie Holiday, and Lester Young—all the stars! They gathered around the piano and stared as though they'd been hypnotized, as though it was the first time they'd ever heard anything like that. The director was so impressed by the expressions on their faces that he had Billie and Count and the rest of them stand at the piano when they show went on the air, just so he could televise their reactions while Monk played.

For the record Monk played "Blue Monk" with Abdul Malik on bass and Osie Johnson on drums. Basie was the only one who showed up on camera, and Monk did not like his presence at all. To the contrary, he found it distracting. However, having seen this video myself, I have to say that Basie seemed to be both attentive and appreciative. On the basis of Eckstine's anecdote, I am willing to give Basie the benefit of the doubt and assume that his appreciation was sincere, although I would be a bit surprised if this had been his first opportunity to see Monk perform. On the other hand I have to wonder whether or not he was aware of Monk's irritation, in which case he may have been torn between respecting Monk and respecting the authority of those only interested in producing "good television."

This was not Monk's first encounter with television. He had been a guest when Steve Allen was hosting The Tonight Show back in 1955. Conditions there were probably much more to his liking. Still, in today's world of American Idol, it is hard to imagine network television doing anything even remotely close to the encounter that CBS had arranged.

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