Can't Silence This Monk

Jazz is terminally ill. That most American of musical genres is in serious danger of dropping dead, struck down by an incurable condition known as apathy. No one cares about jazz any more. But you know what? Jazz has grown boring anyway. Just look at all these pompous artistes tooting their horns without any sense of showmanship, without personality, so serious in their work they've forgotten that music is supposed to be fun. Unfortunately for them, fun and character -- two essential ingredients to any kind of saleable artistic endeavor -- are sorely lacking in the image jazz artists so often present, when they bother to present any image at all beyond that which can be gleaned from deeply theoretical, professorial-style interviews in any number of musicians-only publications.

Jazz wasn't always like this. Think about the public persona, the Q-rating, as it's now known, of old-time cats such as Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller. Today jazz artists rarely attain that level of across-the-board recognizability. Sure, that's due in part to situations beyond the control of most musicians. But it certainly doesn't help that the vast majority of these tremendously talented individuals have forgotten one hugely important element: It's entertainment, man, not a lecture. Like it or not, there's more to entertainment than hitting the right note.

So until jazz musicians themselves wake up and smell the brass polish, most music fans, including many potential-but-as-yet-unaware jazz supporters, are going to continue to echo one very definitive chorus: Screw jazz; let's rock.

That hurts, doesn't it, jazz fans? Especially for you few lonely die-hards, you true jazz connoisseurs, clinging desperately to your icons, your deities: Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk -- you can't stand to hear that kind of talk. Have another glass of Cabernet, though; bury yourself in the comfort of your standards, your history. Everything will be just fine.

Yeah, right.
"Jazz has been committing suicide for quite a few years," shouts jazz bandleader Thelonious Sphere Monk, Jr., or T.S. Monk, as his fans know him. "It just happens to be such a wonderful art form, such a strong art form, that we haven't been able to kill ourselves yet. But where are we? We're in our own little world. And that doesn't make much sense, because if you're not touching base with the mainstream, you're committing suicide."

No need for an assist from Dr. Kervorkian. According to Monk, the jazz industry is doing the deed all by itself. Understandably, as a band leader and the son and former bandmate of a jazz legend (T.S. began a two-year stint drumming with his father's band at the age of twenty), that makes him a little nervous. It makes him somewhat unhappy. Oh, all right, why be polite? It pisses him off.

Consequently, T.S. is campaigning for a wholesale change in the way jazz is marketed. In fact, in the seven years since he fully embraced his heritage and released his first jazz album, Take One (1991), he has become one of the most ardent agitators for the complete retooling of the genre's public image. "If jazz were the finest tomato paste in the world," he analogizes, "and if it were sitting on a shelf in the biggest supermarket in the world, I would have to say that its problem is that all the other tomato pastes on the shelf have shiny, gleaming aluminum cans with fabulous artwork on the front, enticing you and attracting your eye. And people are buying them. Jazz is on the edge of the shelf, in an old, rusty tin can, with a tattered label. And we're sitting in there saying, 'How come nobody's buying the best tomato paste in the land?' This is the problem."

He's right. It's true that jazz is, by and large, living in the past, dying in the present. It was once America's pop music. Ubiquitous. High and mighty. Untouchable by less-creative, less-spontaneous musical styles. In the early decades of this century, jazz enjoyed premier status in dance clubs and concert halls throughout the land. It was a fun music, a good-time, crazy sound that hit the masses where they lived. Essentially, in the days of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, jazz was a party and everybody was invited. Then came bebop. "You have to understand that the bebop movement in jazz was very similar to the punk-rock movement in rock and roll," explains the 48-year-old Monk. "It was very underground, it was very political, and it was not smiled upon by the establishment. All of a sudden this music went from being the mainstream music of the country to going in a direction that's politically incorrect.

"That created a problem with the marketing of jazz. How do you market a Thelonious Monk? We know how to market Duke Ellington, we know how to market Louis Armstrong. How do you market a John Coltrane, a Charlie Parker? They're playing this wild stuff and we don't know what it is. When jazz turned in the direction of bebop, that was almost like a communist movement. They basically rolled out the old guard to disassociate from beboppers. Guys like Louis Armstrong and these heavy-duty, established guys basically said that bebop wasn't cool."

It was cool, though. Maybe too cool for mass consumption. By the Sixties jazz had retreated to those stereotypical smoky basement clubs. It became a music not to be danced to but to be pontificated on. It became art. It lost its fun, entertainment-oriented side and became a sit-down, deeply serious, minutely critiqued style. And except for the fairly recent successes of lightweight, pop-jazz artists such as Kenny G, it's never recovered.

Along the way, however, the fanatics running most jazz record labels learned that jazz recordings and artists, while they may never crack the Top 40, while they may not line the walls in gold and platinum, had longevity. Put a good jazz record on the shelf, and as long as the artist was musically credible, the record would sell for decades. The music sold itself. It didn't need to be marketed.

But Monk says that failing to market jazz the way rock, hip-hop, and country are marketed is a mistake. He has looked around and seen how other musical subsets -- once downtrodden, laughed-at, denigrated -- managed to lose their hokey image, grab the populace by the ears (and eyes), and shout out, "Buy this music!" Successfully, too. He wants jazz to do the same. "I watched the country-and-western industry say, 'We're gonna show you.' I remember when Conway Twitty and all those guys -- we used to laugh at all those guys, playing all these dinky little clubs down South in the Bible Belt and all that. But I'll tell you, I don't see anyone laughing at Garth Brooks flying through Madison Square Garden or bringing a million and a half people out to Central Park! That's because the industry decided to really market their stuff. That's what you've got to do. You've got to seriously say, 'Let's go for the throat. Let's really try to sell ourselves.' They didn't change the product, they just changed the package."

Unlike a lot of other contemporary jazz artists, Monk has benefited from seeing how the music business packages and promotes its products outside the jazz world. He took up drums at thirteen and advanced his skills at his father's side as a young man, then switched to a more accessible music style -- R&B. He put together an act with his sister Barbara and girlfriend Yvonne Fletcher in the late Seventies and recorded three reasonably successful albums for a division of Atlantic Records. The group, called T.S. Monk, scored a couple of minor hits (most notably 1980's "Bon Bon Vie [Gimme the Good Life]") and toured extensively. His career as an R&B star came to an end, though, with the deaths of both Barbara and Yvonne (shortly preceded by the death of Monk Sr.).

Stunned, Monk took a long break from playing music, choosing instead to serve as the spokesman for the then newly founded Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. He traveled the world, speaking out emphatically on issues of music education and stumping for contributions to the institute. But his desire to perform was still strong. After piecing together a group, Monk plunged into the world of serious jazz, signing with Blue Note Records and cutting three discs in the Nineties -- Take One, Changing of the Guard, and The Charm. He has since elevated himself to the top of the jazz world (Monk on Monk, a collection of his father's tunes recorded last year with stars such as Arturo Sandoval and Ron Carter for the N2K label, earned overwhelming accolades from the jazz press). And through his eye for marketing opportunities usually ignored by his contemporaries, he has attempted to move both his own music and the genre as a whole back to the mainstream.

"There is no marketing for mainstream jazz," he grumbles. "It's not like there's a little marketing, there's no marketing. In order for the music to survive, to not be filed away on CD-ROMs or become an antique, we're going to have to get involved in the entertainment matrix. That means using all of the tools that the market uses. This is the only issue for jazz.

"The issue of where the music is gonna go is a nonissue. It's not for us to know. The music is based on spontaneity. There is to be no concern as to the direction of jazz. People say, 'Where is jazz gonna go?' Well, we don't know where it's gonna go, but it's gonna go somewhere. It always has, it always will. That's not an issue. The issue is, are people going to be able to earn a living. Is it going to have a viable fiscal structure, a foundation to it. And in order for that to happen, we're going to have to market it. We're going to have to get out of the ads in Down Beat and put ads in People. We're going to have to stop shooting college concert videos and get television involved. And to get television involved, we're going to have to change our look. We've got to market the music. My father and all his peers, through blood, sweat, and tears, set this game up. The very least we can do is sell the damn music."

The T.S. Monk Sextet performs at 8:00 p.m. Thursday, August 6, at the Coral Gables Congregational Church, 3010 DeSoto Blvd, Coral Gables; 305-448-7421. Tickets are $20, $25, and $30.

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Adam St. James