A Brush With Immortality: Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, and Jackie McLean


BENEATH THE SPIN  Posted by Eric L. Wattree                                via #blues2jazzguy

I went to Shelly’s Manhole with some older brothers to see Thelonious Monk one night, and I noticed that Monk kept looking over at me as he was playing. It made me nervous because I was under age and I thought he was gonna give me up and tell ’em to kick me out. They already knew me at the clubs around town. I knew damn near every waitress in this city. Sometimes they’d let me stay, and other times they’d kick me out – I never did figure out what made the difference. And they’d never serve me drinks, so I’d have to order something non-alcoholic and bring my own. But I wanted to be accepted as a sophisticated adult more than anything in life, so sometime I’d put the bass in my voice and try to casually order Scotch on the rocks. But the waitress would just look at me sideways like, “You’re lucky I’m letting you stay here, so don’t push it, buddy.” T Monk  at Piano plaid jacket .             One or two of the waitresses who’d been around for a while knew my mother when she was working as a greeter at Dynamite Jackson’s, and I think they put the word out on me. So they’d tolerate me, but they just wouldn’t let me be the man who I wanted to be so desperately, because I wasn’t. It’s sort of funny when I look back on it. Had I been sophisticated enough to know what adulthood actually entailed, I would have been more desperate to hold on to those precious years than was I to become an adult. . So I just kept coming back and braving the humiliation, because from the time I was 12 years old I loved everything, and everybody, associated with jazz. I got that gene from my father. As I’ve said many times before, my father thought the only reason the Sun came up was to keep Bird’s reeds warm. I had to fight the preacher at his funeral to have Jackie McLean playing “Love and Hate” in the background. I told the preacher if they don’t have jazz in Heaven, the Pearly Gates would constitute the entrance to Hell for my father. The irony was, when I was done reading the eulogy that I’d written for my father (Blues For Mr. C), with Jackie Playing softly in the background, that very same preacher came up to me and asked me for a copy.    Monk meditating in Cosick Hat . On that particular night, however, after his first set, Monk walked up to me and TOLD me, “Come with me.” He took me back to the musician’s lounge where Nelly was, and asked, “Who does he remind you of?” And she said, “TOOTIE!” – Monk’s son. . He saw me as a young wide-eyed joke, and I was. I was 16 and on a roll (I had just seen John Coltrane a couple of weeks earlier). Monk asked me, “What you know about jazz, boy?” And I started telling him about all the urban legends that I’d heard about him. As he was listening intently to one of my stories he asked me, “Damn! What did I do then!!!?” You have to know how Monk was to know why I look back on that as being so funny, because he was dead serious. He got into the story like I was telling him a story about someone else. I never did find out whether the story was true or not. But When I was done, he told his wife, Nelly, “Shit, he knows more about me than I do,” and they started laughing’ their asses off. . I spent that entire night with them, because I was so young that Nelly was worried that I was gonna be picked up by one of those,”Hollywood perverts.” Monk told Nelly, “Shit,who you should be worried about is (Blank)? ” – his drummer (I’m not gonna give his name because he’s famous and he’s never been outed as gay). But for the rest of the night I sat in the front row next to Nelly, and after the gig I went to their hotel room with them and we grubbed and talked. I told him how I planned on becoming a great saxophone player someday, and I asked him everything I could think of about Bird. I remember him telling me, “Naw, you don’t want to be Bird, unless you like bein’ broke. How much money you got?” I had about five dollars in my pocket. And he said, “Shit, you already richer than Bird was half the time,” and then started laughing’. Nelly said, “Don’t say that, T!” They dropped me off at my mother’s door just as the Sun was coming up. It was a night I will never forget. monk's dream album cover . After that episode, the OGs made me a celebrity in the hood. I’ve never had that much attention before, or since. I had attracted the interest of THELONIOUS MONK. EVERYBODY wanted to know EVERY detail of what went down, and every detail about Monk that they could get – everybody, including Jimmy, the brilliant dope fiend that my father had hired to teach me to play the saxophone. There are a lot of details that I’ve left out of this story, and I remember every detail like it happened last night, but I do intend to write about it, and every nuance of that great man in the most minute detail in the near future, because it’s of historic significance. People STILL don’t realize how great that man was. You can listen to “Ruby My Dear,” or “Round Midnight,” and they constitute a MASTER’S CLASS on what contemporary music is all about. I could appreciate that even back then. So I thank God that I had the sense to know that I was in the presence of immortality. . I also intend to write about an entire New Years weekend that I spent with Dexter Gordon during the 70s. He grew up two blocks from my mother and they both went to Jefferson High School here in Los Angeles. She graduated; he went on the road with Lionel Hampton at 17 years old. During that weekend Dex made a passing comment regarding how I idolized him that ended up becoming the guiding philosophy of my life – “Learn to become your own hero, because you’re the only one who won’t let you down.” He also told me, “Whenever you hear me play a lick, your very first thought should be about how you could go about playing it better.” He was right, and that was the key to his greatness. Lester Young was his main man, and you could hear Lester in him, but he wasn’t Lester – he was Dexter, and nobody did it better. But he was wrong about one thing. He never did let me down. He blew the lights out until his very last breath. But I’ve taken him at his word, nevertheless, and he became my last hero. That’s turned me into a severe cynic over the years, and that very cynicism has been of tremendous value to me as a writer. I don’t trust the word of nobody, so I start off every piece I write by probing for lies.

Eric Wattree

Award-winning writer, Eric L. Wattree

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “A Brush With Immortality: Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, and Jackie McLean

  1. A most fascinating story:
    A Brush With Immortality: Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, and Jackie McLean. It was so well written that I was transported to that space and time.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s