When and where did you first hear the piano and compositions of Thelonious Monk? On vinyl? ABC Radio? Was it in Kym Bonython’s lonely jazz record store or art gallery in Adelaide, or maybe it was in concert in Melbourne? Perhaps you first saw him on the cover of Time magazine? Where ever it was, the memory will still be with you, and his music a part of you.
Surprisingly Thelonious Monk only wrote about 80 compositions, all of the same high quality and in his idiosyncratic style. Even if you don’t know jazz, you are likely to know of some of Monk’s tunes, ‘Round Midnight’, ‘Straight No Chaser’, ‘Epistrophy’ and ‘Misterioso’.
“Misterioso, a journey into the silence of Thelonious Monk” is acually an event. Monk was allegedly silent for seven years before his death. It is like David Hare’s “The Power of Yes” at the National Theatre, a story rather than a play, of the credit crunch. At the very core of “Misterioso…” is Monk’s music. It is set in a New York jazz club, possibly Minton’s, in the ’50’s which immediately brings fond memories of The Village Vanguard, still there today. There were some tables and chairs in Studio 2. Most members of the audience were unwilling to dance but happy to drink with the cast and take part in a Q&A afterwards.
This was the McCarthy era, segregation, racism, the Ku Klux Klan and strange fruit. As a black man and musician, Monk felt this intensely. He served time for his friend Bud Powell and lost his cabaret card to perform in NYC and earn a living. Even worse, on another occasion the police struck Monk’s hands with a baton when he refused to get out of Baroness “Nica” Rothchild’s Bentley he was driving. The cops found a very small amount of grass inside but Nica, Monk’s long term friend, took the rap.
The play has a number of telling lines, the most being “America invented jazz and the electric chair”. It isn’t clear whether Monk said that, but jazz lives on and evolves. The chair has probably gone and one hopes that the death penalty is fading into oblivion. Perhaps after the first black President and health care for all in America.
Monk’s jazz is classical American music. It was vividly performed by a silent Pat Thomas as Monk without his “strong, aggresive touch”, David Leahy on double bass and Mark Sanders on drums, both on the London free-music scene. The “role” of Charlie Rouse was played by Jean Toussaint on tenor sax, mellower than Rouse and a former member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the ’80’s. Toussaint lives and plays in London, and teaches at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Misterioso was written by Stefano Benni and inspired by Laurent De Wilde’s biography “Monk”. Acclaimed Italian jazz vocalist Filomena Campus directed. Although Monk didn’t perform with vocalists, Campus chose to add her poorly miked vocals to the story because there were no other women musicians in the cast! This was unnecessary and detrimental to Monk’s music. Tamsin Shasha as the jazz Baroness turned aerial as a shrouded butterfly and destroyed a stunning bass solo by Leahy on the other side of the stage. But all this was redemed by Christina Oshunniyi as Nellie Monk and Billie Holiday who tellingly didn’t sing.
Misterioso was first performed at the Riverside Studios in London in 2007 and then at the 2008 Edinburgh Festival. It has just finished a November 2009 run at the Riverside Studios.
The joy of Misterioso is Monk’s music. “If you can play like that, you don’t need to talk!” Nothing else was needed.