Offspring of famous figures often carry heavy burdens, living up to what came before them. Not T.S. Monk. As the son of the late iconic jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, T.S. not only made his own road in music as a hit-making drummer and bandleader (most notably for the heavily sampled “Bon Bon Vie (Gimme the Good Life)”). He’s also embraced the legacy of his father as co-founder and chairman of the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz board of trustees, responsible for championing and educating musicians like Joshua Redman, Ben Williams and Jose James. He’s also a collaborator with International Jazz Day, an annual event each April celebrating jazz all over the world.
Monk’s latest project is Reflections of Monk: Inspired Images of Music and Moods II, an art exhibition in Harlem featuring work from over 20 painters, sculptors and photographers. As an unparalleled ambassador of jazz, Monk imparted his wisdom to EBONY about his father, jazz backlash and how to bring jazz to the youth.
EBONY: When did you decide to create this exhibit for your father, Thelonious Monk?
T.S. Monk: We began the exhibition last year and [it] was really the idea of some family members. That’s really the emphasis of the Reflections exhibit. Also, over the years, Thelonious has been such an inspiration to artists in so many different disciplines. We felt everybody’s going to play his music forever, so what about other things? What about the inspiration? The inspiration is what grows a legacy, and we want the legacy here for a long, long time.
EBONY: If you had to pinpoint one thing about Thelonious that’s inspired so many people over the years, what would that be?
TM: In a word, it would be philosophy. First of all, jazz in and of itself is not a musical technique, it’s a musical philosophy. Everybody’s using the same 12 notes, everybody’s using the same time signatures. So the difference is in the philosophy, the approach of what you’re playing. Thelonious represents a quintessential prototype for jazz musicians in particular. But for artists in general, intellectuals in general, that philosophy is about focus, honesty, pushing the envelope and entails a unique approach to life in general.
EBONY: You were recently on the news speaking about people who say what jazz is and isn’t. What do you have to say about jazz musicians, past and present, who reject the word jazz?
TM: It is very basic. For many jazz musicians, in particularly older guys, guys who really fought the good fight to make jazz what it is—and I’m going back to the ’30s and ’40s when the movement was really strong—for those people, saying the word jazz, particularly coming out of the mouth of a White American, was tantamount to saying the word ni**er. “It’s ni**er music.”
Jazz comes from the French word jas, which means whore. It’s about whorehouses; they played in the jas houses. It was Americanized and called jazz. Basically what they were saying is, this is whorehouse music. And it was insulting because one of the most intellectual endeavors in the history of mankind is jazz. So given that this is a tremendous intellectual endeavor and given the fact that it’s taken a very long time for White America to recognize Black intellectual acumen, that’s the basis of this rejection of the word jazz.
EBONY: You incorporated a lot of funk and R&B into your music in the early 1980s. How important is it to incorporate contemporary music styles into jazz in order to get young fans?
TM: First is the issue of incorporating jazz into modern, contemporary music or vice versa. As far as I’m concerned, jazz has been the somewhat unwilling amputee of every genre in this country ever since its inception. Jazz has been the cauldron from which the ideas that filter down to popular music goes.
The electric guitar—and I’m not talking about Elvis Presley, I’m talking about the electric guitar as we know it in modern R&B music, the sound of people like Cornel Dupree—that style is a direct descendent of Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery. If you take the electric piano, Herbie Hancock brought the electric piano to modern popular music. Art Blakey brought the open-and-close hi-hat that became the staple of hip-hop. That has always gone on when ideas have come from jazz, filtered down, and eventually become part of popular musical culture. I often say, “No Monk, no funk.”
Second part of your question, as for young people: when they closed the dance floor for jazz, that was not a Black decision. That was a White decision to close the dance floor, sit everybody down and make them eat dinner and listen to the music. That took the fun out of jazz for African-Americans. That’s exactly when African-Americans said, “I’m out of here.” That’s why more often than not, when you go to a major jazz concert, it’s mostly White Americans.
Also, in terms of bringing young people into jazz, in order to do that in large numbers—and I’m talking about the music industry as a whole—[it] has to re-engage the entertainment industry. For almost 50 years, jazz has been out of entertainment. Once jazz went down into the clubs and bebop came along and was rejected by White America and by the so-called established jazz community, you don’t see jazz on television.
EBONY: What coming next?
TM: We have an event called International Jazz Day which we performed in Osaka, Japan last year. We streamed it to 2.5 billion people. That’s billion with a “b.” There’s no other genre that is played in every country in the world. There are countries in the world where you put on a Michael Jackson video and you might get your head cut off, as popular as he is. But every country in the world has a community that’s involved in jazz because, as I said, jazz is a philosophy. It’s to the essence of who people are, wherever they are, and that’s very important at the Monk Institute. And I’d like to remind you that 2017 will be the 100th birthday of Thelonious Monk, it’s going to be a wonderful year.
The “Reflections of Monk: Inspired Images of Music and Mood II” exhibit is currently at the Dwyer Cultural Center in New York City through January 4, 2015.