Music Interviews

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Thelonious Monk
and Hal Willner

interview by William C Leikam

first published in Artist Magazine, San Francisco

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Thelonious Monk—Watercolor 1"
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Dateline: New York

New Musical Frontiers

Thelonious Sphere Monk was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina on October 10, 1917, but grew up in New York City, where he began playing piano at the age of five. He played many Harlem clubs in the '40s, beginning his illustrious career as the pianist for the Cootie Williams Orchestra, where he gained fame in 1944 for his tune "Round Midnight." His style was based on the bebop, but he was always an individual, known for his alternative hats and his many personal idiosyncrasies.

In 1947 Blue Note Records signed Monk and recorded him for a few years, but he remained rather obscure and unknown until he released a recording of De Ellington hits in 1955. Then in 1957 John Coltrane was kicked out of Miles Davis's band because of a severe drug problem. But when the great saxophonist joined Monk's quartet, people quickly began to recognize Monk as one of the great stars of jazz. He signed an extended contract with Columbia Records in 1962, and appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1964. He continued to tour through the rest of the '60s, and played with the "Giants of Jazz" in the early '70s. But then in 1973 Monk suddenly retired, as he suffered from some sort of mental illness which kept him from touring, with the exception of a few rare appearances. He died in 1982, at the age of 65.


When I first heard the recording, That's The Way I Feel Now—A Tribute To Thelonious Monk, I felt drawn to it, excited about what I had heard, and said, "My God, what's Willner produced here?" As many times as I have since heard the recording, I still feel the same. Thelonius MonkThe album reflects a fresh approach to Monk's music, without distorting it or losing Monk's genius in the process.

Jazz has always meant change, improvisation and a spirited approach to music. In so doing, it has come to influence all other musical forms in one way or another. Willner's effort with this album may have the power to continue this tradition by taking Thelonious Monk's music, translating it in a variety of new ways, and thus influencing some of the most modern musicians of our time.

It was this experimentalist attitude that came to be synonymous with Monk himself. Indeed, it has been widely recognized that Monk created a new language for the jazz world. During my interview with Hal Willner in New York, I expressed that sense. He replied, "(Monk's] all there in different ways. It shows that Monk was much more than a great jazz musician. It shows how his compositions work in any reasonable form. They are great compositions... (He is] one of the greatest composers of all time, and one of the most innovative piano players of all time. Period!"

Although Willner did produce one previous album on Hannibal Records, called Amarcord Nino Rota, this is truly his debut into the mass market. The Monk album, however, places Willner in an artistic quandary. "It's a strange thing being the producer of a record like this," Willner said, "because it's like being a spokesman (for Monk], even though it's my album.... It's a strange position to be in."

Nonetheless, what are Willner's attitudes toward music that have allowed him the courage and insight to create such a recording as this? Shortly after Thelonious Monk's death, Hal Willner attended a tribute concert. It struck him that all of the musicians playing Monk's music were from the traditional field of jazz, yet Willner knew that Monk had influenced a far larger musical world than jazz alone. "Why weren't they also represented?" he wondered. This was the creative question that eventually led to the production of this record.

But, what is Willner's creative spirit toward music that would allow him to carry it off?

Q: In one of your earlier interviews you said that you always wanted to make people...

HAL: Make them cry.

Q: Yes, and Ask Me Now was the piece that you'd talked about.

Thelonius MonkHAL: And Monk's Mood can do the same thing to you. That's the reason I decided I wanted to produce records. I think that's what music is completely about. Music, to me, is 100% emotion. Even if you can't play an instrument, if you can affect somebody (through any artistic means), then it's worth something. It has to make you cry, or laugh. Music can anger you. It can make you happy or sad. It has to do something! So much of the music I hear nowadays doesn't do anything to you. I mean, it's good and you say, "That's nice, that's very good. But has it changed my mood?" That's what I'm trying to do: change people's moods.

Q: That's the focus of all great art and the intent of all great artists, like Monk. But sometimes you can hear a piece that is technically well executed, yet in that execution there's still something missing.

HAL: It's just technique. They do this great stuff, but you know you have to ask, "What are you trying to do to me? You want to change my life?" I guess I look at music that way. I use a lot of imagination when listening to music. I do give it my full attention. I can't read and have a record on. Music grabs my attention like that. I'm really drawn to it.

Q: What was your conception with regards to the overall album?

HAL: I definitely put together albums in a cinematic way, kind of like movies, and I hope that a lot of people listen to music in that way. That's where I want the listener to be, kind of take them on a journey. I miss the (sort] of productions that used to be on albums, like Rolling It For the Money and Sergeant Pepper. They're like movies. They take you places. That's what I try to do. It was important to me to mix up the rock and the jazz tracks, to take you on a journey instead of just separating everything. At times I was wondering, "Is this going to work?" You know, I didn't want people to say, "Well, the jazz tracks are better than the rock tracks." I want it to be viewed as a whole, knowing, of course, that it's not going to work for a lot of people's taste. But (regarding] the sequencing, we wanted to highlight every number so there wouldn't be one thing that'd be hidden, which happens in a lot of records. There are cuts (in most albums] that are (lost], but basically you don't notice. Every important track comes between two other tracks that have nothing to do with it.

Q: In creating this double album you established some rather strict guidelines: If a musician was contacted to play on the album, the response had to be positive—an immediate "Yes!" If there was any hesitation, or "Let me sleep on it," they were automatically eliminated. All of the musicians on the album, then, had to have been in some way touched by Monk's music.

HAL: I think a lot of people were influenced by him as a composer, while others as a piano player, and a lot of them, both.

Q:  But how did Monk's influence leap across such diverse musical talents as for instance Frampton and Shockabilly?

HAL: Well, every track has its own story, but everyone on this record had to be at least acquainted with Monk's music; it had to have touched them at some point. Now, the Frampton cut—I can't say the same goes for any two cuts—but basically I called Chris Spedding, who I knew was a very big Monk fan and a great guitarist. I asked him if he was interested and he said, "Sure!" He called me a few days later and told me that he had run into Peter Frampton at Roseland and he was interested in doing it with him as a duo piece. I wasn't sold. I mean, I knew Frampton was a good guitarist and all of that, but I wasn't aware of his abilities.

So, I went down and had lunch with Chris and Peter, and Peter began telling me all these guitar things about Django Reinhardt and...WOW! I didn't know he was that (versatile). And they chose the hardest Monk piece to play—"Work." No one plays "Work"! I mean, if you've ever heard Monk's version of it, it's hard to hear the melody the first time. So, Chris put together an arrangement. They did it, and it's wonderful. It really adapts that tune and makes it an incredible rock'n'roll piece. Frampton's solo over those really hard changes is beautiful. I don't know if Monk influenced Frampton's music. I'm sure it influenced Spedding's, but the love is there in Peter.

This album is for someone like me when I was 15. When I was 15 I had to have music like that of Frank Zappa in rock but who incorporated jazz in his music for you to hear in a non-commercial way, and people like Miles Davis who explored rock in an artistic way, so there was a way for it to happen. When I was that age, if an album (like this] had come along, I'd have jumped for it and it would have changed me. I would have learned a lot from it. There aren't records being made like that nowadays. Hopefully, like me at that age, some heads might turn around from my records.

Q: But somewhere along the way you must have had some trepidation, some uneasy feelings. In one of the interviews you did, you said that you felt that what you were doing might be sacrilege to Monk. Is that true?

HAL: I did have occasional feelings of paranoia about whether it would all work together and whether the jazz critics were going to fry me. Things like that happened (in my head] during the recording, but when I had finished the record I new that could never be the case because the album was filled with love from everyone, and any jazz critic that says anything is wrong, is just wrong. (The business about sacrilege] is a little exaggerated. I had working relationships with both Carla Bley and Steve Lacy. They were on the Amarcord Nino Rota album and both became really good friends. Steve Lacy is one of the greatest musicians of all time—especially with Monk, that is his thing. That's how he's known, and Carla is one of the greatest arrangers of all time. They know this kind of music well! So, I met with them and I knew that they would be honest with me. I asked them, "What do you think of this?" and they were both incredibly enthusiastic.

I guess what I'm going for with these records is trying to get that (creation of a new musical language] by just combining these musical forces, having a lot of different people working.


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