chasing the mystery of Thelonious Monk

His masterpieces – Round Midnight (1944), Straight No Chaser (1951) or Blue monk (1954) – are so many restless journeys between blues and dizzying be-bop improvisations. Who do we hear first? His deceptively tender caresses, sometimes dissonant but also pounding, accompanied by intriguing murmurs? The terrifyingly human side of this explosive game, with its share of randomness? With each individual answer… But now, beyond his music, another magnet keeps the mystery of Monk moving forty years after his disappearance, his inexhaustible psychiatric abyss: schizophrenic, bipolar, autistic.

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The monk is Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, between devil and god. In 1958, under the eyes of his protector, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, he received a blow from a truncheon, where he hid the effects, until he remained an idiot, insomniac for hours, walled in the secret of a very dark soul. and unsurpassed as the tomb of Tutankhamun. In 1988, an aesthetic film by documentary filmmaker Charlotte Zwerin (Direct No Claim), made by jazz fan Clint Eastwood, tried to understand the horrors of the phenomenon. Laurent de Wilde also dedicated to him one of the best musical biographies ever written. He recounts in the Seghers collection how chance led him to take an interest in this jazz tightrope walker on the edge of nowhere. now, Mysterious monk reconstructs with great joy the dazzling enigma of the icon, through the works he inspired, poems, essays, testimonies, from the musicians who played with him (Coltrane, Gillespie, etc.) to the later ones generation (Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano….) .

A Proust madeleine for jazz

With the baton of this wonderful work in large format, Franck Médioni searched the magazines, the books, unearthing this lyrical meditation published in the magazine Esquire in 1997, under the pen of John Edgar Wideman: the most bop of the great American novelists recalls a stay in Paris, in a boarding house. Rain batters the sheet metal roof. In search of sleep, he reads a book recounting the tortured loves of Rimbaud and Verlaine, when, in the middle of the night, he hears a piece of Monk on the walls. The notes of the great pianist act like a Proust madeleine. Memories and images wash over Wideman, the murder of singer Sam Cooke, a James Brown concert wrapped in his glittering and painful cape, the dawn appearance of Monk appearing on a recording, tired This beautiful text navigates through a poetic and complex prose.

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Each story sheds a different light on the tormented artist who circled his piano like a lion in a cage. “The monk has an incredible sense of gag, and all his records are full of humor”, says pianist Bill Evans who popularized his idol’s repertoire. The book is full of amusing anecdotes, such as this memory brought back by Médioni. When the blind pianist George Shearing entered a room where Monk was playing, he said: “I’ll be back when the piano tuner is done. » If this sentence removes the genius from its marble, it testifies to the Monk’s difficulty in hearing this sudden music which he knew so well to embody.

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Because the other merit of this beautiful book is to show us that this great pianist is also a graphic character, with his kufi, his thick ringed hands and his singular position in front of the keyboard. Alongside the beautiful portraits of Jean-Pierre Leloir, Guy Le Querrec and Roberto Polillo, there are drawings by the great 20th century brush artists, Cabu (an opportunity to remember that the caricaturist of Charlie Hebdo who was killed in 2015 was a lovely musical portrait painter), Mezzo with a smoky atmosphere shrouded in smoke, or Loustal. With an airy and luxurious layout, these illustrations perfectly decorate a work that we have not yet finished restoring. Around midnight for example…

Mysterious monk under the direction of Franck Médioni, Seghers, 359 pages, 42 €.

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