Thelonious Explains…

This post is part two of a series about New York in the ’50s. You can read the first here.

A proud and private man, known as an eccentric, even in the jazz world, Thelonious Monk was given to wearing capes, an assortment of hats and caps from silk to fur, and sunglasses with bamboo rims. One night in 1957 he was playing his solo set of the evening at The Five Spot when he was interrupted by a shout from the audience.  A man who must have had far too many of the Five Spot’s fifteen cent beers yelled “We wanna hear Coltrane!” 

Monk said “Coltrane bust up his horn.” 

After the intermission, when Monk came out again and began to play, the heckler became more hostile and asked Monk what he meant when he said Coltrane “bust up his horn.”   Monk stood up at the piano and delivered the following dissertation:     

NY in the 50s

“Mr. Coltrane plays a wind instrument. The sound is produced by blowing into it and opening different holes to let air out. Over some of these holes is a felt pad. One of Mr. Coltrane’s felt pads has fallen off, and in order for him to get the sound he wants, so that we can make better music for you, he is in the back making a new one. . .you dig?” 

The jazz critic Nat Hentoff called The Five Spot ‘the most significant jazz club since the clubs of Chicago in the twenties where Louise Armstrong played. The house group was Thelonious Monk and and John Coltrane. Musicians and lay people lined up three and four deep to get in.”  

Coltrane and Monk were followed by the bass player Charles Mingus and his group.

Allen Ginsberg told me “I got to know Charlie Mingus when he played at The Five Spot, and later at his wedding in Milbook, New York. I’d just come back from India and I knew monochromatic chanting – there were a lot of musicians interested in that mode, like Coltrane. I did a recording of it with Coltrane’s drummer. At Mingus’s wedding I was chanting mantras to Shiva, to Buddha. . .”

I heard Mingus more than once at The Five Spot. If people in the audience were talking, he stopped playing and waited for the talking to stop. He said if people wanted to talk they should go outside. If people continued talking, he ushered them out. The jazz musicians of New York in the Fifties brought dignity to their performances. One of the best and most creative groups was The Modern Jazz Quartet. They did not play in clubs or bars. They gave concerts. They wore tuxedos when they played. 

When I want to bring back the feel of the era, evoke the people and places, I play The Modern Jazz Quartet recording of their own composition, “No Sun in Venice.” Margot Hentoff, wife of the jazz critic and herself a fine writer said “The MJQ was the Fifties.”        There is a dvd documentary about Thelonious Monk called “Straight, No Chaser.” It shows his travels in New York and Europe and sometimes he sits down at the piano and plays songs like “Just a Gigolo” and “I Should Care.” He plays with an eloquence that makes the songs new. Still. Now. 


What Rough Beats

“I met Tim Leary at Allen Ginsberg’s apartment in the East Village one snow Sunday in January to interview the poet for an article I was writing on marijuana [“The Prodigal Powers of Pot” was published in Playboy.] I had been apprehensive about meeting Ginsberg, fearing he would have Kerouac’s hostility to writers who weren’t part of the Beat scene or exhibit the same kind of condescension that some of the Beats treated outsiders with who they put down as square. To my great surprise and relief, I found Ginsberg friendly, businesslike and helpful.

NY in the 50s

He gave me information from his own experience and from his files, making me feel welcome many friends and hangers-on who flopped or crashes simply fell by his place in those days. He was like a practical saint who sheltered and fed the floating population who passed through his pad; every time I was there he was roasting chickens to feed whoever was hungry at the time.  

He introduced me to Dr. Leary, who looked like an eager fraternity guy among the more laid back beats. When Leary heard I was doing an article on marijuana, he immediately wanted to tell me about psilocybin. It was a wonderful stimulus to creativity he said., which was why he was so excited to try it out in some of the poets and writers here at Ginsberg’s apartment. He was going to give order pink viagra online them pencils and paper and see what they wrote after taking the drug. He said this was “a scientific experiment. . .”

Once the psilocybin was ingested (I was offered the drug but opted to be ‘the objective reporter,’) Leary told me all the wonderful things it did.  Besides his claim that it ‘made people more creative,” he said that it made people “mellow.”

“Take Kerouac,’” he said, “Now there’s a guy who exhibited a lot of hostility, especially when he was drinking.”

I said I knew.  I’d seen him around the Village when he seemed quite angry.  

“Wait’ll you talk to him today, now that he’s taken the psilocybin,’ Leary said with a grin. “He’s mild, calm and very friendly.”

Jack was standing by himself, staring out the window, with what looked to me like the same sour, glowering expression.    Still, I went up and introduced myself, smiling.

“Oh yeah, Kerouac said, looking me up and down. “Didn’t you write that big bad piece about me in Commentary?”

“No,” I said, ”it was in The Nation.” 

“Yeah, I know you, you bastards are all alike. You know what I’d like to do?”

 I didn’t want to guess.

“I’d like to throw your ass out that window,” he said.

 I went back to where Leary was standing.

“I don’t think the drug has taken effect,” I said. . . 

No,” he said.


Cecelia is “Grieving for Guava”

Cecelia Fernandez was working as a pharmaceutical rep when she took my class in the Graduate Writing Program at Florida International University. She was a single mother supporting a daughter (who was on the way to Princeton) and twin sons in high school. She wrote a story called “The Button Box, conjuring up a childhood memory of her last visit to her beloved Cuba before her family fled to the U.S. from the revolution they did not support. The story had power, evoked a lost time and the  love of  a lost homeland. Her story held the promise of a writing career – but such promises are seldom fulfilled.

Cecelia was committed. She left the pharmaceutical world and pieced together a teaching life, working as a part-time instructor at five different schools and colleges around the Miami area. And she kept writing. She wrote and published a memoir of her time growing up in Miami’s Cuban exile community, Leaving Little Havana, that won  First Place for Most Inspirational Book in The International Latino Book Awards. She kept writing. She wrote short stories, and compiled enough good ones to have a book of stories that has just been published.

When I go to Miami two or three times a year to visit my God Daughter, I always check in with Cecelia, to hear of her latest accomplishments, the trials and obstacles she overcomes. She told me she couldn’t ativan buy online no prescription think of a title for her collection of stories. I read with fascination this book that told of the Cuban exiles’ longing for their lost island, the sights and sounds and tastes of La Habana, that city that becomes more richly mythical as it recedes into memory. I realized that the spirit of her work could be evoked by the memory of a favorite Cuban food. I suggested she call her book Grieving for Guava. Cecelia liked it, and so did her publisher. Now it is out and available on Amazon.

Many people have Cecelia’s dream of becoming a writer; few reach the goal. All it takes is blood, sweat and tears. Red Smith, the legendary sports writer of the New York Times, was asked once if it was difficult to write a daily sports column. “No,” he said “All you have to do is sit down and open a vein.”

So it is with all good writing, so it is with creating a book. Cecelia has written a book of stories that dramatically tells of the love and the perils, the pathos and courage of those who have come to a new country to make a new life with a new language, new rules and customs, new obstacles and challenges.  This is real life drama, told with verve and spirit. This is what is called “a good read.”

Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield