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Preordained Rhythm : Thelonious Monk Jr. Follows in the Musical Footsteps of His Famous Dad : HEP-CATS : A Musical Legacy by T.S. Monk, Sr. and Jr.

March 04, 1993|BILL KOHLHAASE | Bill Kohlhaase is a free-lance writer who regularly covers jazz for the The Times Orange County Edition.

The circular, stack-of-45s look of the Capitol Records tower in Hollywood seems like a perfect place to interview a man who's middle name is "Sphere." And somewhere up on the seventh floor, where there's a sweeping view of the hills and the lights of the city, T.S. Monk--drummer, one-time R&B artist and son of the late, mysterious hep-cat of jazz piano, Thelonious Sphere Monk--is talking about how his life has come full circle.

It's the day before the Grammys, and Monk Jr. is in Los Angeles to accept a lifetime achievement award for his father. He looks every bit Monk's son in a sharp, black fedora (his father was famous for his headgear), a crisp white shirt opened at the throat and shades (another of his father's trademarks).

The junior Monk, while taking orders from a photographer, says he is "on a mission" and calls himself a "media vulture." With a first jazz album, "Take One," out on the Blue Note label and another being readied for release, one might think the 42-year-old percussionist would be banging his own drum.

Instead, the junior Monk, who played in his father's last groups and later led an '80s R&B band named T.S. Monk, concentrates on his father's achievements and his hopes for the fledgling institute that bears his father's name. That his own sextet, which appears tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano before moving into Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood Friday for a four-night stand, has created something of a sensation, seems secondary.

A call comes in. It's National Public Radio, wanting to know if the junior Monk sees any irony in the Grammy's selection of his father for the lifetime achievement award 10 years after his death and some 40 years after his greatest triumphs. Slightly offended, Monk retorts, "Not at all. Not at all."

Later, he explains: "Thelonious (the younger Monk constantly refers to his father as Thelonious) was uncompromising in his music, but don't think he was unaware of the accolades given during his life to lesser beings, so to speak. So I think it points to a changing of the guard when a Thelonious Monk receives a lifetime achievement award from an establishment entity like the Grammys. It's an affirmation and a validation of the things that Thelonious and Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach and all those guys did to change the music."

The senior Monk, who, along with Gillespie and Parker, was there on New York's 52nd Street during be-bop's formative days in the '40s, was little understood and vastly underappreciated during his life. His playing worked a quirky, often propulsive rhythmic style immediately identifiable as his. Still, Monk is best known as the composer of the beautifully melancholy ballad " 'Round Midnight," and such jazz standards as "Misterioso," "Straight, No Chaser" and "Little Rootie Tootie," which he wrote on the birth of his son in 1952.

"I think there's been four or five great music composers in the United States in the last 75 years," Monk Jr. asserts. "Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Stevie Wonder and Thelonious Monk. Some people would include Charles Ives."

So it figures that drummer Monk would include three of his father's tunes on "Take One": "Skippy," "Think of One," and, of course, " 'Round Midnight." But the recording doesn't make any attempt to sound like something from pianist Monk. Instead, T.S. mines the hard-bop sound of the late '50s and early '60s, concentrating on the music of saxophonist Hank Mobley, trumpeter Idrees Sulieman and especially Kenny Dorham, the late trumpeter-composer who was a mainstay of the Blue Note label during that period.

"My father was in love with the quartet," explains Monk. "I've always loved the small ensemble, quintets like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. And the greatest writers of that sound were from that period. Kenny Dorham is my guy and the world doesn't really know who he is. Well, I'm determined to let them know. The sound of the T.S. Monk band is the Kenny Dorham sound."

Though Monk admits having his father's name has opened doors for him, he says he isn't out to mimic his father's style. "A lot of people have this feeling that I'm important in jazz because I made this very good record and my father is Thelonious Monk. But I'm not really on that trip. If the old guard is changing, I'm not one of the new guards taking their place.

"The people who know me as a performing artist, knew me as an R&B artist, they don't know me as a jazz artist. Who gets a chance in their early 40s to discover a brand new career? That's the advantage of being Thelonious Monk Jr. People didn't know what to expect of my father and they don't know what to expect from me. It's startling to be who I am and have it turn out this way."

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