So the Story Goes: Tootie Heath and Thelonious Monk


Thelonious Monk, courtesy of the William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress

News | Jun, 6th 2016

Jazz is social music—both on and off the stage. If you get a group of jazz musicians in a room with their instruments, it’s only a matter of time until they start jamming. If you get a group of jazz musicians in a room without, it’s only a matter of time until they start sharing stories from the road.

In this new, original series, “So the Story Goes,” we will highlight some of the great stories in jazz.

                                                               

Jazz drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, grew up in an exceptionally musical household. His brothers—tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath and bassist Percy Heath—also went on to become famous musicians, and the Heaths' Philadelphia home was known to be a good hang for musicians traveling through town. As such, Tootie spent loads of time chatting and playing with a diverse group of musicians from all over the world; however, all of this exposure did not prepare him for his first encounter with Thelonious Monk.

When Tootie was still in high school, he had the opportunity to play a week of shows in Philadelphia with the iconic, and enigmatic, jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. In a recent interview with Jazz at Lincoln Center, here's what Tootie had to say about the experience:

I played a week with Monk and, every night, Nica [Monk’s friend and noted jazz patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter] would bring him from New York in the Rolls Royce to the club. They would sit out in front of the club, 15-20 minutes before time to hit, and Thelonious would be smoking and Nica would have her cigarette holder and she would be smoking. They were sitting in the Rolls Royce and then he would come in the club with his hat and coat on, sit down at the piano, [wouldn't] say nothing to us… nothing! 

We didn’t know what we were playing… nothing! We had to know Monk’s music. Some of the songs, [bassist] Jimmy Bond didn’t know what key they were in, so he was trying to watch Monk’s left hand to try to find out which key. But Jimmy was such a wonderful musician that he was able to really figure it out after a little bit. 

Thelonious had his back to us; he’s playing piano facing this way and drums are back there and bass is back there. So every night he would end the set and walk off—never take his hat or coat off, go out, sit in the car on the break, come back in, still didn’t say nothing. 

He did this for the whole week. So we were trying to figure out, “Man, does he hate us? Does he like us? Are we playing his music right?” But that was it! He never said anything! I didn’t get it.

Click here to read more entries of So the Story Goes.

*****

Image credit: Thelonious Monk, courtesy of the William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.


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