Can't Silence This Monk

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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."

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Adam St. James