I’ve enjoyed the piano work of Thelonious Monk, but didn’t know a lot about his life and relationships. Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful is a book about some of my favorite jazz players, and there’s a great chapter on Thelonious and his wife Nellie. The insight into his work and their relationship from this chapter alone are worth the read.
After Thelonious was arrested for heroin possession, (he takes the rap for his friend Bud Powell) he was barred from working in New York City. But this was his city and he didn’t want to leave.
The un-years was what Nellie called them. They came to an end when he was offered a residency at the 5-Spot for as long as he wanted, as long as people wanted to see him. Nellie came most nights. When she wasn’t there he got restless, tense, pausing for an extra-long time between numbers. Sometimes, in the middle of a song, he called home to see how she was, grunting, making noises into the phone that she understood as a tender melody of affection. He’d leave the phone off the hook and go back to the piano so she could hear what he was playing for her, getting up again at the end of the song, putting another coin in.
– Still there Nellie?
– It’s beautiful, Thelonious.
– Yeuh, yeuh. Staring at the phone like he was holding something very ordinary in his hand.
This connection between Thelonious and Nellie, the artist and the one who enables the art, is powerful. Thelonious had to share his most intimate creative thoughts, first and foremost, with Nellie. Much of the chapter is about Thelonious absorbed in his music and playing it primarily for the pure action of playing it. To play was what he needed to do. But, clearly, he also needed to share with Nellie. So beautiful. This next passage is more about Nellie’s view of Thelonious.
There were times when Nellie looked at him and wanted to cry, not because she pitied him, but because she knew one day he would die and there was no one else like him in the world.
Wow! What a powerful vision: to know that the person you spend time with is such an amazing and unique creation. I suspect that each of us has the same opportunity to be amazed at someone close to us and see their extraordinary uniqueness. We know we are blessed because God has given us time with this person. They are like none other and the world will be a lesser place when they are gone.