Monk, Amblyopia & All


Wanting to check one detail about Monk’s life, I picked up my copy of Straight, No Chaser: The Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk by Leslie Gourse, and searched… and an hour later, I discovered I’d happily read a big chunk of the book.

So far it’s a very balanced treatment, from what I can tell: Gourse doesn’t shy away from the few unpleasant things that come up, but doesn’t dwell on the either. It’s not a particularly musical biography, so far: no analysis of Monk’s music. (There’s more of that in Gabriel Solis’ Monk’s Music, which I’d dive into next if it weren’t in storage in Seoul right now.) Still, for biography, the Gourse is interesting enough, and draws on a lot of personal interviews, while also including a lot of interesting tid-bits and a decent broad picture. There’s not enough about the music, but then, nonmusicians might find this perfect.

One caveat: Gourse seems to be very interested in the idea of mental illness and its role in Monk’s musical life. Not in a dismissive way, of course, but there’s a degree to which Gourse seems to subscribe to the idea of genius and mental illness being inextricably linked. I’m not all the way through the book, so I’ll have to see how the topic gets handled, but I’m always a little leery, especially since “madness” often seems to come up in discussions of jazz musicians–but especially black jazz musicians–and their “genius.”  Certainly I’ve seen suggestions about other great musicians suffering from undiagnosed mental conditions–Coltrane, for example–and they may not all be off-base. But I’m always a little leery.

But in terms of general biography, my impression of Gourse’s book is positive so far. I had no idea Monk had appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, by the way, but he did… and was one of the few jazz musicians to do so.


Is it crazy to imagine that in some sad-sack households, this cover was more controversial than any of Hitler’s appearances on the cover of Time? (Including when Hitler was Time‘s “Person of the Year” in 1938?)

Last year, BoingBoing posted a cartoon briefly recounting the story of how he lost his Cabaret Card in 1951–basically, he got busted because Bud Powell tried to hide his smack, and it ended up falling to the floor at Monk’s feet, and Monk refused to give up Powell. Weirdly, though, some of the extraneous details in Gourse’s account contradict those in Wilcock’s account in the comic: for example, Wilcock has them outside Powell’s sick grandmother’s house, while Gourse claims they’re parked outside Monk’s place.

(Because , Gourse explains, Monk was living with his mother in a tiny apartment, and she was sick in bed, so they hung out in the parked car. Powell was supposed to fly to Europe for a gig, but Monk kept mum as much out of a desire for self-preservation: to survive on the jazz scene after his release, he couldn’t turn in a fellow musician and friend. Gourse’s version of the story is based on Maely Dufty’s account in the 2 July 1960 edition of the New York Citizen Call, which I guess was some kind of magazine…)

I don’t bring this up as an attack on Wilcock or Gourse, mind you: it’s just that it’s an interesting contradiction, and I suppose more than anything it’s a caution to a writer like me, who is so hell-bent on getting fictional details “right” that he’ll angst about something like this. And yet one of the singular, crucial moments in the life of one of the 20th century’s greatest musicians, and there are two versions of the story. In the film version of Monk’s life, which version of the story would you go with?

(And, by the way, why isn’t there a Monk biopic, for goodness sake?)

Thelonious Monk - Underground (1968)
The cover of Underground (1967). Maybe not Monk’s best album, but it’s one of the best jazz album covers ever. Yes, that’s Monk “playing” a French resistance fighter… though there are shades of black power and the alchemist’s laboratory here, too. And a Nazi, beside a swastika… and bread and cheese… and a French girl. And a frigging cow.

The cartoon over at Boing-Boing is also is slightly unclear–probably just because of space limitations–that the cabaret card suspension was not merely “during” his stay in jail, but because of it; the cabaret card rule was really just another cynical way to screw over black musicians, a northern Jim Crow-ism that impoverished countless jazz musicians; it was an unqualified attack on the jazz world and ruined lives, likely driving more musicians to drugs than it cautioned away from it… even if occasionally musicians managed to spin gold out of the straw it forced upon them. But, at the same time, at least according to Gourse Monk was able to (and did) perform in clubs in the boroughs (Brooklyn, etc.), though he didn’t like to travel; also, he actually did occasionally (though clandestinely) play clubs as well as rent parties and apartment gigs in the city.

But the loss of his cabaret card was very unfair; as his wife argued, Monk could have been isolated while in custody, and that would have shown he wasn’t suffering from withdrawal. But the point wasn’t catching drug users: it was about hurting and terrorizing jazz musicians.

The detail I was originally looking up, by the way?

I was wondering if there was any information about Monk having a lazy eye. I’d seen a photo that made Monk look like he had a lazy eye, and (having a lazy eye myself) I got curious. If you look around for pictures of Monk, you’ll notice he often isn’t looking directly at the camera: his head is mostly at an angle in photos, and when it isn’t, he’s usually wearing sunglasses, so that in most photos I’ve seen, one (or both) of his eyes cannot be seen.

There are a few pictures, though, that suggest he may have had a lazy eye. Not this one, so much:

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I don’t see a lazy eye there, but in these ones below, it sure looks like is left eye (Monk’s left) is wandering:

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Thelonious Monk Credit: Archive Photos



I know, you’re all thinking: THE HATS! Yeah, Monk rocked some killer, crazy hats. But I’m pretty sure he had amblyopia… that is, he had a lazy eye. That could explain why he was found unfit for military duty during World War II, though I don’t know whether that was considered grounds. It sure seems likelier than the childhood asthma that Gourse cites, in any case.

(Oh, and plenty of famous people have lazy eyes. You just haven’t noticed. Someone’s collected a few pictures over on Pinterest that might surprise you. Well, except the Thom Yorke… he makes no secret of his lazy eye.)

I would be remiss not to include a track for your edification, so, from Underground (see that cover above again, and marvel):