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Thelonious Sphere Monk, Jr.

After four years of silence, during which Monk, Jr. fought a bought of pneumonia, TS is back in the spotlight.

Already a world famous star, TS makes his comeback on his own terms and on Higher Ground.

Multi-talented, articulate, yet warm and a bit humble, TS Monk, Jr., tells where he was, where he is and where he’s headed.

T.S. MONK: Hello.

JAZZREVIEW: Oh my goodness. Did you just wake up or is your voice always that deep?

T.S. MONK: No, it’s always that deep. Everyone tells me that on the phone. I don’t know why. I’m just excitable.

JAZZREVIEW: I was hoping to start this interview with your current CD.

T.S. MONK: I’ll leave it up to you, where we start.

JAZZREVIEW: I was a little afraid you would dread this being a rehash of old questions, being repetitious.

T.S. MONK: No. I love this stuff. You know, we now have 5,000,000 people on this planet. Lots of them don’t know what I’m doing. So wherever we start this interview is fine.

JAZZREVIEW: You are right. Even researching on the web, I read a lot of material to be able to distinguish between you and your dad. But, you are a person unto yourself. I’ve listened to your CD a hundred times. You have a great band. Every song is tight. Is there a goal you were trying to reach when you created this album? What is your reaction to this CD?

T.S. MONK: Well, uh it’s exactly what I wanted it to be. Your response to it is exactly what I was going for. This is a continuation of my last album, Cross Talk. You know, I’m a drummer and a bandleader. So, right there, I gotta do a lot of different things. But, this album is on my own label. That’s pretty much what this is about-me trying to connect with my audience.

I’m fifty-three years old now, so my audience is the baby-boomers, you dig? The audience is pretty disenfranchised in the market place.

So, I’ll just tell you my history: I grew up in my dad’s house so I was, early on, predisposed to Max, to Byrd, to Coltrane, to Diz, to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I clearly grew up with that stuff.

I was born in 1949, at the end of the swing era-the beginning of the bebop era. I did some growing up with Duke and Ella Fitzgerald. But, I also grew up listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Fats Domino and The Big Bopper-in my formative years, during the 50s.

I went away to a private school in Derrien, Connecticut during the 1960s-a very white school, very preppy and very incubated, where I experienced the Bee Gees, the Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix-all that stuff; all the rock and roll which I wouldn’t have been exposed to being in an all African-American community. But, since I grew up with all those middle class kids, I grew up with all that.

I also grew up with the Motown sound. I also grew up with the R&B of the 70s and early 80s. I was in the studio. I watched us deal with disco and said to myself ‘Oh my god, will it ever end?’ Then, we had new age, new wave, and then hip-hop.

What I’m trying to say to you, Nina, is this: That my audience (pause) I believe there are a lot of people out there who love Coltrane, who love Grover Washington, who love the Beatles, and who really love Earth, Wind and Fire and who love James Ingram. This makes me realize my love is cross talk. I am a cross talker. There is a generation out there who are cross talkers.

Our generation had to go to school and take music appreciation. We listened to Bach, Beethoven, Handel and Hyden. This ear is an ear that understands a variety of music. And, for me, in jazz, there are a lot of different kinds of jazz.

There’s no one kind of jazz. In fact, there is no traditional jazz, as far as I’m concerned, because the music is too new. My father died at 63 and he was a work in progress. Clearly, Charlie Parker, Lee Morgan were works in progress. And, Clifford Brown, at 32, had to be a work in progress. You say these people are traditional. I say there is no tradition. We’ll be defining traditions in jazz for the next 200 to 300 years.

My instrument, the American Trapp drum is 75-years old. We have yet to define the right way to hold the sticks. (chuckle)

This divided house of jazz is crazy. I’ve seen a lot of people cross over. My idols are Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and George Duke-people who’ve had a foot in the jazz thing and a foot in the funk thing and a foot in the pop thing, saying ‘you know what? I wanna take that to the next level.’ I think there’s an audience out there.

I happen to know my audience will come to see me. I will play something as straight ahead and as intellectually tight as Haristocracy and follow up with something as smooth as Girl Watchin’. All I get is standing ovations at the end of the evening.

This ear has got to be addressed. You’ve got a lot of young guys out here who are told to do this traditional jazz thing. Yet, the only guys who are on the cutting edge are the guys in Roy Haynes’ band, you know. And, those guys are on the cutting edge!

JAZZREVIEW: Is that what you call acid jazz?

T.S. MONK: No, but it’s pushing the envelope. You know, I believe for me-TS Monk, Jr., slash- bandleader, slash- drummer, slash- composer, slash- publisher, slash-chairman of the Monk Institute of Jazz, --I got a lot of different looks to me. And, my band has got a lot of different looks to it.

You know, when I started my band in 1992, and I was doing a very so-called traditional jazz, according to the jazz police, that was very acceptable for Thelonious Monk, Jr. Even in my first interviews, I told people I want my public to think of me as a cross between Art Blakey and Blood, Sweat and Tears.

That’s what Higher Ground is all about. And, that’s what TS Monk is all about-because you know what, darlin,’ when I did Monk on Monk, that was a watershed album for me. It was sort of the final validation for me, with my public-who has been extraordinarily kind and extraordinarily generous with me, both on the layman side and on the critical side, because all the while I did Monk on Monk, from 1991 to 1998, with all the accolades I got, with all the packed rooms I played, still in the back of everyone’s mind-this is Thelonious Monk, Jr. And, you know-‘What’s he got to say about his father’s music’? When I did Monk on Monk, and everyone said, ‘he’s got a handle on his father’s music,’ that put the whole thing to rest. That was the final stamp of validation.

A jazz musician is supposed to find his voice, find his niche, and do his thing. I had to sit down with myself, you dig? I had to say okay. Now everybody knows you can play-you really can play, even your father’s music. That was it. ‘Cause, you know, I had a problem. I didn’t know if they liked me cause I’m Monk, Jr., or did they like me for me? Monk on Monk sort of laid both of those issues to rest.

I had to decide the real issue. And, the real issue is: what is my job as a musician--now that I’ve done all those things the way everybody thinks I should-- given who I am. My father spent his career, and his buddies spent their career defining their niche.

I sat down and decided I am a cross talker. Whatever I do, whether straight ahead, or funky, I am who I am. And, I’m a cross talker. The audience likes me for who I am.

And, the reason Higher Ground is on Thelonious label instead of any other label is because the record I make can’t be made at any other jazz label.

Now, I’ve been on every major label. But, they’re saying, ‘you got no focus here. You got one tune that’s smooth and another that’s straight ahead. We got no market for it.’ But, there IS a market for it.


T.S. MONK: You know, the people I’ve been able to get my record to, love it. They say, ‘that vocal by Miles Griffith is fantastic.’ They love it.

And, I love Ladera Heights. I play it while driving in the car, you dig? Know what I’m saying? That’s my audience-they dig it.

JAZZREVIEW: Right It’s fantastic.

T.S. MONK: I watched my dad, along with Diz and Miles, apply their craft in light of overwhelming obstructions, criticism, etc., etc., etc. They were sure of who they were and that’s why we love them, today.

The reality for a jazz musician is: sooner or later, you gotta lay yourself on the chopping block of your public. We all dream of: they’re gonna say, ‘yeh, we love ya.’ But, the reality is that sometimes they don’t love you. They may not love you, but you got to persevere.

They didn’t dig my dad &&&til his dying days, but he persevered. Today, they love him cause he was who he was. He was being himself. The problem I have with a lot of jazz musicians is that everybody’s trying to play like everybody else.

It’s that kind of de-emphasis on individual personality and I think it comes through on the records. That’s why you’ve got a lot of wonderful young musicians out there making records that are fabulous facsimiles of records you already have-made by giants.

JAZZREVIEW: Right. I think a lot of creativity has been lost due to fear of breaking out and being one’s self.

T.S. MONK: Which is the opposite of what this is all about.

JAZZREVIEW: Right. I grew up in Detroit, during the Motown era. So, I understand what you’re saying about crossover. It certainly worked for those folks. I also understand what it did to the industry. The industry will never be the same.

T.S. MONK: You know what I dug as an R&B artist? If you were in a band like Lakeside, Earth, Wind and Fire or the Commodores, or you were in a singing group like Harold Melvin and the Blue Note, or a single singer, like Teddy Pendergrass, --we were all funkin’ it, ya dig? This divided house didn’t exist.

Certainly, you know, hip-hop is united. Sure, they’ve got their east coast and they’ve got the west coast. But it is united. I like ZZ Top and someone over here likes the Beatles and we all like rock and roll. But, suddenly, when it comes to jazz, you get the traditional guys pointing at the younger guys and saying, ‘well, they’re young, so they don’t know anything.’ And you get these smooth guys pointing at the old guys saying, ‘well, they’re old so their stuff is out of date.’ The outside guys are saying, ‘they’re out to lunch.’ While the out to lunch guys are saying, ‘they’re slaves to the paper.’

It has absolutely destroyed the fundamental, philosophical, bold-faced neon sign that’s always hung on jazz that says, ‘Everything’s cool all the time. Everybody has something to say. And, everyone is included.’ Now, how did a root philosophy like that get funked?

We’re no longer going to participate in that. That’s why, my dear, Higher Ground is the kind of record, within the philosophy, when listened to from my standpoint as a producer, it IS the TS jam.

It isn’t about technological proficiency. I’ve gone into a room and seen 17-year olds with the technological proficiency that would scare the hell out of Charlie Parker. But, they don’t tell a story because they don’t understand the philosophy. The philosophy is to influence: not to copy. The influence is to believe in yourself and to find your own sound. This kind of thing goes beyond just you and your instrument. It goes to your band and the music you play on the next level, you know. One of the imperatives driving the music I make is-you gotta play the music you love.

Forget the jazz police. The divided house of jazz has hurt us terribly.

You know, the way jazz got divided was really this: in the early 60s, TS Monk was really hot. I was in the middle of stuff. In the middle 60s, along came the Beatles. That upped the anti on rock and roll. They upped the anti on everybody in terms of marketing, in terms of public relations, in terms of distribution, everything.

Every other idiom responded to the call by upping the anti, except jazz. Jazz was the was the only idiom that instead of opting to up their anti and play the game--the new game, with more marketing, wider distribution, bigger advertising, they chose to change their product. And so the Frankenstein monster of the jazz offices created a new [permentation] of jazz--a new music called, at that time, jazz-rock. The bases was, if we change the beat of this music, all those rock and roll people are gonna go for the okie-doke and start buying our product, instead-cause it has more substance.

That didn’t work. And, when it didn’t work, the first thing they changed-they changed it by removing the chords and the beautiful melodies, and all that stuff. And, they changed instruments.

See, I can speak clearly on this time, cause people would say, ‘you gotta go hear this rock band,’ and I never heard anybody in jazz say ‘I don’t wanna hear that.’ What they would say is, "Let’s go hear what it sounds like."

When they got there, they were aghast because they would say, well, my god, I don’t see a bass, I don’t hear a piano, and they’re not playing any melodies. All I’m hearing is a beat.


T.S. MONK: So then they took this product and said, we’ll call it jazz-funk. And, we’ll call it new wave. Finally, they came up with this name, ‘smooth jazz.’ And, that stuck on. But, by the time they came up with that name, there was such animosity between the makers of so-called smooth jazz and the makers of so-called ‘traditional’ jazz, that all of a sudden, you had these two divided camps. The rest is history and it’s hurt us. And, I’m saying, "I’m not gonna participate in that-at all."

My daddy would slap me. He’d tell me ‘ play what you want to play and just play the hell out of it. Just go with it, and that is that’.

JAZZREVIEW: (chuckle) You’re absolutely right

T.S. MONK: So, that’s the kind of record I’m making. See, it is intimately connected to my father. Even this record, Higher Ground. I remember when I made Vom Vom Vee in the early eighties, you know, people would say, that’s funk, that’s Thelonious Monk’s son. Why would he do something like that, something so different from his dad?

A few smart people who knew Monk, and who knew the philosophy would say, " hey man, I know your old man would love what you’re doing. It’s completely different. It’s obviously your own thing.

My father was fabulously delighted my sister and I had gone in a direction different from him and we were successful.

So, I’ve had problems with the jazz police from day one-from personal experience, you dig

That’s why I’m having a very good time. And, you know what? At the end of the day, If this doesn’t work for me, it won’t make me think my audience is not this audience I defined. It’ll just make me think well, I didn’t have the product for it.

So, you gotta go with the flow, Right now, I think I’m on the right track-for me. I emphasize, ‘for me.’

They don’t expect me to just be playing some funk. My audience expects me, as I said, come with that Art Blakey intensity cause that’s what the TS Monk band gives you and we get a lot of different looks.

JAZZREVIEW: Uh huh. I think that’s one of the reasons your audience stays with you-because each time they hear you, they know they’re gonna hear YOU, and that’s what they want. Can you see the growth within yourself, from your R&B days to your own jumpin&&& off point to your own label? Can you see where you have stretched yourself-- As far as your playing-- your evolution?

T.S. MONK: In every way I see it. And, the most amazing thing is that, given my pedigree, one might think I would have expected it. And, the wonderful thing about my life is that, it’s been a complete surprise. Everything about it has been unique, from who my dad was to every event

JAZZREVIEW: Are you finding your audiences are a younger group?

T.S. MONK: Yeh, well I do extraordinarily well. I do well everywhere. I’ve been very fortunate. I do well with the older crowd cause I can play that super straight ahead stuff. And they like the fact I can switch gears. But I found out the younger kids, between about 19 and 35 go bananas for me and my band. We’re absolutely adored. That’s why I’m doing more college gigs. -- Cause they just adore me, every college I go...It’s like a Scandinavian gig . screaming after every solo, standing after every tune. I’ve always known, don’t question it. Just go with the flow.

It’s important to me to do my best. And, to figure out how do you sell a jazz artist? How do you do it? And, in today’s environment. None of these people can tell me. There’s no unified formula.

JAZZREVIEW: I think it’s like writing an article. I may have an idea, but I have to approach editors with what they want.

T.S. MONK: Right. You gotta frame it. You gotta have the know how to reach your audience. Look back, Miles Davis in his early year, made the record, Someday My Prince Will Come. The ladies loved miles. You know, Miles was the cutest thing in jazz for forty years.

He was doing that for the ladies. That was no accident. That was marketing. They knew what they were doing, so that’s why I say, ‘it’s not about racism it’s atrophy.’ We haven’t done it in so long, (marketing); it’s like learning how to walk again. We have to make it like a mentality the mentality that jazz can sell. You know I said if you had a product with an unlimited shelf life, and it had an international appeal, and those are the only two things you know about this product, do you think you could sell it? Of course!

JAZZREVIEW: Well, yeh, I think what you’re doing is great. I’d like to see it be written up more. There is a large market for your music

T.S. MONK: I’m not worried. Things are going pretty good for me. I’m at the beginning. I’ve got a good overview of the kind of time and the kind of effort it’s gonna take, and how it has to be sustained. The beautiful thing with the jazz audience is the incredible loyalty that’s displayed with anyone and everyone people think they like. And, as this story gets out of what I’m trying to do with my and my father’s music, people are gonna want to support me. And, they’re gonna want to go buy the record. Simply because they’re gonna want to see Thelonious get paid for a change. They know they saw an artist get ripped off, and they also want to see an artist in power. So, that’s part of the plan, too. Is to talk, to use my gift of gab and to get into interviews and get into the media until this story becomes ‘the buzz’

JR; Yes. And, I think the timing is right. When you find yourself, when you finally know who you are, that’s when things start to happen because, if you had started this at any other time in your life

T.S. MONK: It wouldn’t have happened.

JAZZREVIEW: I understand when you started this, you had a few setbacks like pneumonia, and a few other things kind of bounced you around. And, it took two years for this CD to be put together. But, you persevered. I would like to know: from where did you draw your strength? Who do you draw your strength from?

T.S. MONK: Well, you know, my wife is a piece of work. Her name is Gale. Sometimes I frame it in very raw terms-in very raw socioeconomic terms, and it comes out like this: I’m a second generation African American male that never did anything in his life but play music.

That is so rare, so beyond belief in America. It’s ridiculous. (chuckle)

A nice way to put it is: Again. I have been given a gift by be so blessed, basically, to have run into a woman who has been, virtually for me, what Nellie was for Thelonious.

And what Nellie was for Thelonious is the folklore of what the jazz wife’s story is made of.

And, I have a wife who She is a fantastic mother to my two children. She is an unbelievable accountant. I live in a huge house with in the suburbs of Jersey cause my wife hooked that up. She’s a gourmet chef. In short, I got that dream wife that most musicians look for. Which is a wife who understands that in many ways she’s gonna be second banana to the instrument; who respects that and in every way makes that possible.

Most women-9 out of ten can’t deal with that battle.

My mother could, on a legendary scale. And, I have to say that my wife does.

And, that’s what gives me the strength, to really, you know-because she believes in me. Cause-a lot of directions I’ve taken in my career has been switchin’ horses

We’ve been married 17 years now. And so, the brunt of my career, basically, she’s been there and knows every move I’ve made and has been my confidante and all those things. And, she’s believed in me the whole time. And, that’s priceless.

JAZZREVIEW: I’m sure she’ll be glad to hear those heart felt words.

T.S. MONK: OK . (winding down)

JAZZREVIEW: Is there anything I missed? Or, anything you’d like me to know?

T.S. MONK: Naw is there anything I missed (chuckle), cause I can just go on and on and on .(chuckle)

JAZZREVIEW: Nope, guess that’s it. You have a great project. I wish you great success with it. Thank you for making this interview so easy.

T.S. MONK: And thank you. Take care now.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: T. S. Monk
  • Interview Date: 11/1/2003
  • Subtitle: On Higher Ground
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