American Routes Shortcuts: Remembering John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk

Aug 10, 2018

John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk
Credit American Routes

When John Coltrane finished high school in 1943, the 17 year old moved from North Carolina to Philadelphia, joining his mother, Alice, who worked as a domestic. Soon after his arrival, she bought him an alto sax. In the small apartment on 12th Street, he began a life of intense practice. Coltrane’s talents grew in the city’s vibrant jazz scene in the 1940s. Young Coltrane took theory classes at a local music school, and then went to night school in the clubs, with professors of jazz like Dizzy Gillespie, R&B sax man Earl Bostic, and alto player Johnny Hodges. Playing in different bands allowed John Coltrane to learn on the job, expanding his abilities both as a soloist and as an improviser. One of the most important stops on Coltrane’s path to musical self-awareness was his residency with Thelonious Monk. He got there thanks to Miles Davis. Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter and Thelonious Monk's son, T.S. Monk, tell the story.

Lewis Porter: So what happens is he’s working with Miles Davis from the fall of ’55 to the spring of 1957 when Miles says to him and other members of their group in so many words, “You guys are a bunch of drug addicts, and I need to be working with people who have their act together. Goodbye until you get your act together.” But at that time Coltrane, as they say, landed on his feet. He ended up in the group with Thelonious Monk, one of the brilliant composers of jazz history. Well no better way for him to get an inside scoop on how jazz composition is done.

T.S. Monk: Thelonious was the one that really got Coltrane away from Miles.

Nick Spitzer: Thelonious Monk’s son, the drummer, T.S. Monk:

TSM: You know, he would tell Coltrane, “You need your own band. You do not need to be with Miles.” He was very, very adamant about Coltrane’s ability to go out on his own, “Spread your wings, you got it now.” I think that what Coltrane was doing was pushing the envelope, but unfortunately he was taken away from us before he got a chance to get to where he was going. He was obviously in transition.

NS: T.S. Monk has fond memories of Coltrane’s visits to the household on West 63rd Street, the San Juan Hill neighborhood in New York City.

TSM: I can just remember my father hammering on this young guy. You know, Thelonious would be teaching him something really difficult like “Trinkle Tinkle” or something like that, and he would say, “Yeah man you can play it. No, you can play it, no try it again, try it again. You can play it. Look, the critics, forget them. In fact, you know when you play them two notes, that’s the stuff.”

NS: It was through Thelonious Monk’s encouragement that John Coltrane dove deeper into his own compositions. Jazz pianist and Coltrane biographer, Lewis Porter:

LP: In one interview, he said, “Around Miles I always felt worried that I might do something that would make him angry.” That doesn’t sound like a very relaxed relationship. With Monk, he said, “We could talk music for hours and hours,” and Coltrane was the kind of musician who liked to talk music, he liked to sit and talk music. Miles was very impatient with that, he would say, “Come on man, why do you have to talk about that?” But Monk, that’s all he liked to do was sit at the piano, and Coltrane really loved Monk, I think he loved being with him.

TSM: I knew that my father absolutely adored him because John Coltrane could translate Thelonious onto the tenor saxophone, and if you actually listen to John Coltrane pre and post Monk, you see that Thelonious was a profound influence on John Coltrane on his instrument.

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