Two Men Down
Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker in church after-hours
Innocent as a dove, wise as serpent, I was searching for photographic evidence of Thelonious Monk in church. There are accounts of him providing the accompaniment to revival meetings when he was just a teenager that had whet my appetite for the black myth in action and I was beseeching the shallow algorithm to walk for me. Machine performance tends to be filthy with poetic glitches, especially when it comes to the machine’s hunt for black faces to match famous black names. There’s a certain interchangeability always reminding us who is programming the search engines. It bleeds into how we tell stories now, harnessing an acceptable degree of philistinism to suggest familiarity without any depth of knowledge. Everyone has heard of everything, everyone is a universal expert, and takes that exposure to the rumor and the idea of the thing for the thing itself. I first learned of this when an old boyfriend interrupted my listening to Billie Holiday on a Sunday to tell me no one actually listens to Billie Holiday. The no one he was referring to is made up of these complacent philistines and I take it for granted that I could show them a photograph of Josephine Baker and tell them she’s Billie Holiday and they would applaud what they find to be an interchangeable beauty and glamor and turn the intentional error into fact. It’s lamentable but it also affords us the freedom to retell our stories on our own terms, to trade places and bend time and celebrate one another by becoming this oneness instead of punishing the bandits of black identity or generously correcting lazy mix-ups. We all make mistakes. As Monk once told a bandmate you’re just making the wrong mistakes.
I just wanted to see how Monk looked in a chapel, a whim that became a yearning. I’m tired of the disgrace of stages. He loved playing behind-the-scenes, for tap dancers, and he mastered accompanying faith healers. Quiet as it’s kept. I wanted to witness his private glory, Monk entirely on his own terms. One time he went to 6 AM mass with pianist and friend Mary Lou Williams, drunk on a whole bottle of wine, and he fell on his ass on the way in. He meant no disrespect, the god in him made him nervous but not skittish. He never wanted to swaggerjack god, but came nearest and then fell there in humility. He spent a lifetime spiraling up in sound and being tugged at by the very notes he gathers and returns to again and again in his “Epistrophy.” He tugged and tilled the keys and turned them over into blue moods too vibrant for moping but too hip to resist melancholy. He was always insinuating some kind of haunt or fervor submerged in attentive observation of the infinite present, something stalking him that he wouldn’t let get the better of him. His sound carried optimism in it that seemed also sneering, it made and kept all of its promises and dared you to do the same.
Maybe Monk was something of a religious leader, inventor of Bebop which threw off the godless sounding players and plunged the sanctified ones into eternal conversation. I just wanted to see him blend in among some worshipers, anonymous for the right reasons. I was scrolling through images the search yielded that had nothing to do with this, a typical array of Monk snapshots featuring him on stages or under spotlights, and suddenly an image of Charlie Parker passed out in front of a curtain, looking like he could be at the morgue or backstage half overdosing or taking an involuntary nap, interjects. There’s no attribution for this photograph, and no mention of Monk on the web page it comes from. It’s as if the machine imaginary is saying, here is evidence of why Monk needed to find God. Tell him to revive this man or he’ll be this man, part of this series of interchangeable black talents who collapse on stage when they should be on the way to mass.
Bird is just strewn there on the verge of fetal curling, his fists balled like he's grasping for his horn, his mouth ajar, his tie choking him, the curtain forcing him into the prone forefront of showmanship, closed behind him in an act of velvet hostility. He appears to be in trouble and ok with it. A lot of the non-philistines resort to getting in trouble and being ok with it to assert a note of realness into the regimented and entitled pace of Western life with its crazy hegemony of confident phonies. In this light, passing out on stage or fumbling the steps of a church inebriated as a butterfly and undermining the seriousness of idol worship with the joke of it all, killing a part of the self to destroy the false idol, is beautiful.
The machine guided me back to what seduces me most, as they are programmed to do, and what seduces me most is facing the insinuations in black music that most people recoil from and going toward them, and saying these are them—the perfect unperformable sounds that can never be contrived and radioed into submission. What is the sound of Charlie Parker sleeping on stage or Monk on his way to save a soul, yours or his own? Can you tell them apart? Or is this music just a sleazy conceptual thrill for you, a prop that propels you into the new dandyism, or the dumb affection of prestige. Most people will never know what it means to be so visible that the only way to disappear is by digging deeper into the self. Sometimes that digging is like digging one’s own grave and settling in while alive, falling into it from time to time and knowing you can revive yourself. It makes sense these players would scream dig! to one another during jam sessions and rehearsals, as if to demand: go deeper, become invisible, come into me. I've made this area for where you can live and not perish in a dying world, I’ve made you a home in this music. At home it’s safe to fall down or take a nap, someone will help you up. I’m seduced by these marginal and discarded moments because maybe we’re the ones who have to help them back up, in some kind of delayed show of care or by simply noticing the fall, the exhaustion and awe that instigated it, and the way it was turned into a song about surrender. No one really listens to Charlie Parker. No one really listens to Monk. My machine cannot tell them apart. Come be no one with me.
The clearest photograph I’ve found of Monk in church is from his funeral, which is weird because the machine says he’s still alive and comes back in the swift pitch of each midnight to fall on his knees and praise that god inside.
Great writing : fast and deep like a Parker solo.