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Rubies & Resurrections

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s charming short story “This Blessed House,” one of the finest in her prizewinning debut collection Interpreter of Maladies, a mismatched Indian American couple wrangles over what to do with the Christian tchotchkes that begin turning up all over their new home. Husband Sanjeev is an engineer; wife Twinkle is “finishing” her Masters in English. Sanjeev puts Post-its in places where the paint on the baseboard needs to be touched up. Twinkle reads sonnets in the tub. Sanjeev prepares chutneys according to elaborate family recipes. Twinkle buys roast chickens at the supermarket. At one point, Twinkle, who has discovered a bottle of malt vinegar in a kitchen cabinet, uses it to whip up an impromptu stew. Sanjeev wants to know how she did it; he is flummoxed that she didn’t write it down. “What if you want to do it again?” he asks her, as if such a thing were possible.

And so with the tchotchkes, left behind like the vinegar: Twinkle wants to display them prominently, including on their lawn. Sanjeev demurs, calling them “idiotic.” “We’re not Christian,” he reminds her. “No,” she answers, “we’re good little Hindus.” At the climactic housewarming party, Twinkle tells the story of how the relics were discovered. The party turns into a scavenger hunt; a silver bust of Christ is discovered in the attic. Sanjeev refuses to participate. At one point, as Twinkle and their guests roam the attic, he fantasizes about folding up the staircase, trapping them there, and going back to his solitary, carefully ordered, predictable life.

Like many Lahiri stories, “This Blessed House” examines issues of immigration, cultural identity, and assimilation: Sanjeev’s scrupulous and deferential attention to tradition and his carefully-plotted Westernization versus Twinkle’s bricoleur approach to their Americanized identity (her Bollywood name; her doting on kitsch Christian iconography); Sanjeev’s feeling that the house should express something authentic about them versus Twinkle’s desire to deck it out it in the gaudy regalia of the land they have inherited. But at base it is still very much the story of a mismatched couple, one bubbly, frivolous, and spontaneous, the other STEM-serious, trying to accommodate—if not assimilate—to one another.

Among the many details Lahiri mobilizes to express this tension are musical ones. Sanjeev listens to Mahler. Not to say he is steeped in the European classical tradition—no, he subscribes to a mail-order CD service so that he can fully educate himself about the Western canon. He reads the liner notes, but is unable to correlate the words he reads with the music he hears. Twinkle cautions him not to put on Mahler at the housewarming because—in that most clichéd American comment about classical music—it will put everyone to sleep.

And Twinkle? She supervises the “hectic jazz records” played at the party. Of course she does. Spontaneous, gregarious, frivolous, disordered, “hectic” … American: Twinkle is, to quote the title of a popular jazz record, the spirit of the moment.*

A scattering of rubies

I read “This Blessed House” and a number of other Lahiri stories with my sophomore Studies in Fiction students a couple of years ago, together with stories by Guy de Maupassant, Isaac Babel, Katherine Anne Porter, and Italo Calvino. Jazz made another brief, suggestive appearance in Calvino’s story “Crystals” (from the second Cosmicomics collection t zero), which ends with the narrator listening to a record by Thelonious Monk. The serendipity prompted me to reflect with my class on the way authors use music in fiction, the cultural meaning of jazz, and, of course, Monk’s artistry.

Thelonious Monk, 1955. Photo by Roy DeCarava

Monk. The name is redolent in a way few other jazz musicians’ names are. Monk and jazz are virtually synonymous. It’s partly time and place: New York in the couple of decades post-WWII. It’s partly the style, bebop, with deep roots in stride and blues, still the bricks and mortar of mainstream jazz, the sort casual listeners seek out at one of the city’s upscale clubs as part of a night on the town. It’s partly image: shades, strut, sartorial eccentricity. But more than anything it’s feel: swinging, spontaneous, upbeat, unpredictable …. It’s hard not to imagine Twinkle spinning at least one Monk record at that housewarming party.†

At first glance Calvino’s Monk would seem to fit the same bill. “Crystals” tells, once again, the story of a mismatched couple, here the eternal Cosmicomics narrator Qfwfq and his hottie, Vug, wandering around an earth without a settled crust, witnessing the birth of the first crystals. This part of the story is told in a series of flashbacks; in modern times, Qfwfq lives in suburban New Jersey, is married to a woman named Dorothy, and commutes to work in Manhattan. Late in story, staring at a window display of diamonds outside Tiffany’s, Qfwfq sees the reflection of a woman he immediately recognizes as Vug, that mercurial beauty he lost amid the crystalizing earth long ago. The modern Vug is a photographer, and—after Qfwfq follows her to her SoHo apartment—his presumptive mistress.

So a rift again, between the narrator’s modern, ordered, domesticated world, and the disorder he craves, figured in his bohemian mistress. But “Crystals” is more complicated than the simple contrast between order and chaos, the planned and the spontaneous, Mars and Venus, that Lahiri mobilizes in her lovely story. Rather, it’s about the instability of the order-chaos binary itself (hey, this was 1967). It’s the story’s willingness to interrogate the nature of this instability that gives us, I think, a richer sense of Monk’s music, and of jazz.

Glass, Qfwfq remarks early in the story, looks like crystal but isn’t: modern society “mak[es] me run among smooth transparent walls and between symmetrical angles so I’ll believe I’m inside a crystal,” but the world is really “amorphous and crumbling and gummy” (29). “Base” glass is not a crystal but a “paste of haphazard molecules.” The city, with its gridded streets and skyscrapers, does not reflect true order, one inherent in substances themselves, but a simulacrum of order—disorder disguised as order. Qfwfq, “imprisoned” in glass like most everyone else (at least everyone square—hey, this was 1967!), “play[s] the game […] of pretending there’s an order in the dust” (30).

Qfwfq loves order, but he’s no Sanjeev. He rejects the cultural binary that assigns eros to disorder, erupting through a dull, repressive order. “In me,” Qfwfq says, “the idea of an absolutely regular world […] is associated with that first impulse and burgeoning of nature, that amorous tension—what you call eros—while all the rest of your images, those that according to you associate passion with disorder, love with intemperate overflow—river fire whirlpool volcano—for me are memories of nothingness and listlessness and boredom” (31). Or, as he puts it elsewhere: eros is a diamond. For Qfwfq, order is erotically charged by its friction against the formless chaos that preceded it. But in the listless order of the city (and even more, the suburbs), there is no real tension, because there is no true order: eros, like rebellion, is simulation.

This inversion of the erotic associations of order and chaos is only part of the story. In the old earth, traveling through a valley of beryllium crystals, Qfwfq experiences “a vague fear that this triumph of order in such various fashions might reproduce on another scale the disorder we had barely left behind us” (33). Anyone who has seen the jumble of crystals in a geode can relate to Qfwfq’s vision, if not his “vague fear.” Our response is probably more like Vug’s: she likes the criss-crossing of many different crystalline patterns; she likes variety, brilliance, “order in such various fashions [that it] might reproduce on another scale […] disorder.” She likes, in other words, precisely what makes Qfwfq anxious: variegated order on the micro-level that becomes disorder when considered at a higher order of magnitude, threatening the stability of the order/disorder binary.§

Vug herself is a site of conflict for Qfwfq, at once a figure of his nostalgia for the eros of a vanished world that never finished coming into being, and an intimation of that world’s impossibility. Qfwfq wants—or claims to want—a single, gigantic, stable world-crystal that incorporates him and Vug in its unity, and in which the flaws here and there will diminish to nothing amidst the perfection of the whole—the inverse of the perfect crystals in the valley of beryllium whose exuberant agglutination submerges order in a new, vaster disorder. But the singular crystalline ideal Qfwfq desires is impossible, for it contains the seeds of its own destruction; nature is not stability but flux, growth and collapse and regrowth (the story’s image of the sea “kneading” the fragments of the “shattered” world is perfect).

Here’s the rub: beauty (and hence art, and hence literature) arises from disorder; as Vug says, there would be no rubies without the “chance scatter[ing] some chrome atoms” in an aluminum crystal (35). Vug, Qfwfq says, “wants to make me admit that real order carries impurity within itself […] Vug’s world was in the fissures, the cracks” (36). For our narrator, beauty is order, but it exists only potentially, as an ideal; for Vug, beauty is the imperishable, undeniable, and very real disorder dispersed within order, fissuring it with abysses over which order teeters … and into which it plunges. There can be no eros without it, no consummation without desire, without some yearning for an order that never quite arrives.**

Like Lahiri’s couple, there is a “fissure” between Qfwfq and Vug that makes them incomprehensible to one another (or rather, that makes the woman so to the man; there is no sense of any such angst from either Twinkle or Vug). But in “Crystals” the fissure itself is the mark of the flaw—fissure within and without. Qfwfq rationalizes, as contemporary society demands of him—the flaws are just apparent—and clings to his nostalgia for a time when a crystal world still seemed possible. Even as he is reflective enough to know that he is rationalizing, he imagines a Borgesian higher order above the scale where crystals shade back into disorder, a “hypercrystal that included within itself crystals and non-crystals” (37). (Vug is not interested in such abstractions; she wants brilliance, incarnation, stimulation.) Qfwfq is as imprisoned in his desperate yearning and imagined nostalgia for order as he is in the glass simulacrum of the modern city. He is also caught in the fissure between that yearning and his desire for Vug.

As noted, Monk appears in the story’s last sentence, deus ex machina. But what kind of a deus? Here is the end: “The crystal which has succeeded in becoming the world, in making the world transparent to itself, in refracting it into infinite spectral images, is not mine: it is a corroded crystal, stained, mixed. The victory of the crystals (and of Vug) has been the same thing as their defeat (and mine). I’ll wait now till the Thelonious Monk record ends, then I’ll tell her” (38).

The story’s crowning irony is that this world, the crystal world, turns out to be not the world Qfwfq desired, because the crystals themselves are flawed: the “perturbations” in atoms that produce light, the transistors in the radio, even the ice in their drinks. Not to say that he abandons either dream or nostalgia: these crystals are not his, he says; there are by implication “other” crystals, his crystals, from which the ur-crystal world he imagines could be built. He will go back to his simulated life of simulated order, his listless marriage in the suburbs, his glass prison in the city; he will embark on a futile affair with Vug, continue his endless argument with her across the fissure of their difference, across the grooves in the vinyl. But only when the music stops.

Monk’s music keeps Qfwfq suspended in that fissure between thinking and saying, the ordering of inchoate thought as language. Perhaps it has helped him to work out his position, what he is about to announce, when the music ends, where the story leaves us. Monk’s world, Vug’s world, Qfwfq’s silence. Monk’s music is not disorder, but—thinking back to the many images in the story of the interplay between order and disorder—the presence of an abiding disorder within apparent order; or the collision of a number of different orders which achieves a sort of divine meta-disorder; or the continuous feint toward order crumbling back into disorder. The flux of the present in which the story leaves us, and in which Monk’s music moves, against an order we can only assemble in immediate hindsight. It’s not the beauty of disorder, which can be boring (was Calvino thinking about free jazz here, born less than a decade before this collection was published, the year Coltrane died?), but of the flaws within order that create the contrasts by which alone beauty can be apprehended. Monk’s clinkers and his splashing around on the keyboard and his perfectly-timed “late” entries are indeed “the rubies that flower beneath our footsteps.” The tension between an order constantly emerging from and seething back into disorder, like the imperfect crystals of the forming earth—an earth that is after all still forming, even if we cannot sense that change under the apparent stability that reigns during our very short lives (although we seem to be doing our darndest to feel it—perhaps that is what drives our suicidal behavior vis-à-vis climate change, the desire to feel the earth as an organic, living entity, irrupting through our once glass, now plastic, built environments?). That tension is a fair description of what makes jazz a living, breathing art form: between composition and improvisation, between individual and ensemble, and, as in all art, between tradition and innovation.

Lahiri’s story, too, ends with the protagonist suspended. Sanjeev will remain with Twinkle, dutifully following her with the bust of Christ he hates “because he knew that Twinkle loved it”; we never get the sense that he has grown, that he is mature enough to imagine crossing the fissure between them. He is trapped in the amber of his upbringing and personality; he fears to admit to himself what he craves. Qfwfq is at least more dynamic, more angst-ridden. When the record ends—and only when the record ends—he will present his concession—and then the argument will continue (e.g., “Your crystals, Qfwfq? And where exactly are your crystals, love?”). Argument, too, is amorous tension; agreement, concession, whatever, are momentary consummations.

By the way, who put on that record: Qfwfq or Vug? Calvino, the scamp, never tells us.

Lord, there’s Thelonious

As I prepared to teach jazz poetry (and then a broader unit on jazz) for my Writing About Music class in the early twenty-teens, I was surprised by the number of poetic elegies written for jazz musicians. Granted, I drew my selections entirely from the 1991 Jazz Poetry Anthology (eds. Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa, Indiana UP), so this observation might be a reflection of the biases of the editors, or of the handful of poems I selected about a few key figures (Coltrane, Monk, Holiday), or of the lives of the figures I chose to examine. Still, there do seem to be a disproportionate number of elegies in the genre, going at least as far back as Frank O’Hara’s classic one for Lady Day.

As I wrote in the last “Postmortem” installment: “Why does jazz poetry have a tendency to be so elegaic, so heavy? So much jazz poetry seems to miss the breath and hop and light beauty of the music—and what Art Blakey called ‘goofin’.’ It intones rather than sings.” (For further reflections on the philosophy and pedagogy of this class, see the “Postmortem” trilogy: 03.13.11, 08.24.12, and 08.07.19). Why, that is, does jazz poetry spend so much time mourning the often short and tragic lives of the artists rather than celebrating the gift that is their music—their ability to transmute that pain, as Sonny notes in “Sonny’s Blues,” into joy? (“Listening to that woman sing, it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through—to sing like that. It’s repulsive to think you have to suffer that much.” Amen.) Why doesn’t it seek the tone of those jazz funerals at Riverside Church (and surely elsewhere), where musicians come to engage in a sort of spiritual pallbearing, to carry forward a legacy as much as mourn a passing? Wasn’t poetry, which foregrounds the musicality of language, the timbre of voice, meant to sing, too?

But then maybe all poetry written within the last fifty or sixty years is tinged with mourning: elegies for presence, laments for its lack. Writers, and particularly writers with a background in academia (almost a given today), are trained to be hyperconscious of the ostensible failure of language, to distrust the very medium in which we work. The literary text is an always-already- fallen world; words, in Qfwfq’s terms, are “base glass.” (Today, they might be plastic.)

What are the consequences of this constant reminder to mind the gap? Why are we so afraid to trip? Is there anything so surprising, so unexpected, so life-affirming, as falling flat on one’s face? Has poetry become so self-conscious it can’t swing?

Maybe. Or maybe elegy simply imagines a different kind of presence. For one near-constant of the elegaic strand of jazz poetry is manifestation: be it as ghostly sensation or embodied appearance, the musician returns from beyond.

Such resurrections are only as convincing as the language that performs them, and so the strength of our faith in that language: in the ecstatic pronouncement that closes the gap between presence and representation, or at least enables us to forget it, even momentarily; to suspend it, like eternal Qfwfq with that Monk record left spinning, or the coin at the end of the film Inception.

Amiri Baraka’s, for example, taking a page from Victor Frankenstein’s book at the end of the mighty explosion that is “AM/TRAK”: “Live! You crazy mother / fucker! / Live!” Even John Stillman’s serene “In Memoriam John Coltrane,” which (despite its title) is about listening, is carried entirely by the music of its language and its cyclically-repeated imagery. It is a memorial that swings, an elegy that commands us to “listen,” that restores the music rather than the musician. (I suppose that’s why it’s my favorite poem about Coltrane.)

At least initially, Yusef Komunyakaa’s approach to the jazz elegy couldn’t be more different. Consider the first eleven lines of his “Elegy for Thelonious” (1984): “Damn the snow. / Its senseless beauty / pours a hard light / through the hemlock. / Thelonious is dead. Winter / drifts in the hourglass; / notes pour from the brain cup. / Damn the alley cat / wailing a muted dirge / off Lenox Ave. / Thelonious is dead …”

Yes, Thelonious is dead. And from the glimpse of the funeral we see in the documentary Straight No Chaser, it was a traditional affair: folks filing by the casket to pay their respects, rather like Komunyakaa’s austere, ceremonial lines do. It is a poem more about the speaker’s grief than about the man who has passed, let alone his music.

Monk (left) et al. outside Minton’s, 1947. Roy Eldridge is second from the right. Photo by William Gottlieb.

In the second half of the poem, however, the speaker rouses himself from his grief. It turns out they are a musician as well; we might have intuited it from the musical attention to the cat’s wail. And the only way out of mourning is music: “Let’s go to Minton’s / & play ‘modern malice’ / Till daybreak” (28-30). There is a noticeable shift in diction and tone here, signaled by the ampersand and contractions. And then: “Lord, / There’s Thelonious / Wearing that funky old hat / Pulled down over his eyes” (30-33). The expletive completes the shift. Monk’s appearance is prefigured in lines 24-6: “The ghost of bebop / from 52nd Street, / Footprints in the snow.” It’s notable that the hat, not the eyes (which are covered), becomes the identifying mark, almost a synechdoche, like Prez’s porkpie. A case of mistaken identity, in the blear of near-dawn? Perhaps. But the most important thing is not the truth of the (ghostly) presence—is “Thelonious” on the bandstand? at a table? standing in the back? did the speaker ever even leave their apartment (or wherever) in the full stop between lines 27 and 28?—but that the speaker’s grief has impelled them (actually or imaginatively) into a musical space, Monk’s space, where a collective (“let’s”) marathon session conjures Monk’s musical avatar.

It might be said that John Sinclair’s “humph” (1988) also features a Monkian resurrection … except that this poem never quite says that Monk died in the first place. The first two quatrains: “they say monk / couldn’t play the music. they say, / monk, he limited / by his own vision // & just can’t play right. monk, / he too weird. his music / don’t sound right, and he gets up / & dances …”

“humph”’s slightly later publication date may help explain the absence of the raw immediacy of grief that characterizes Komunyakaa’s “Elegy,” which that poem labors to transcend. But everything else about Sinclair’s poem is immediate, most notably Monk himself. By the second stanza the tense has shifted from past to present (from “monk couldn’t play” (2) to “he just can’t play right” (5)), the shift anticipated by the vernacular elision of “to be” in line 3 (“he limited”). And there the poem emphatically remains. If at first we’re unsure whether it is only the detractors’ comments that revive Monk by speaking ill of him—an act of conjuring within the poem—at the end, Monk, very much alive, “shoots a grin / from behind the piano.” What surprises Komunyakaa’s speaker (“Lord, there’s Thelonious”) Sinclair’s takes for granted.

The poem’s diction and tone reinforce the feeling of presence and immediacy. “humph” is vernacular, agrammatical, casual, and expletive-enriched; it is strung through with ampersands and, despite the full-stops, no capitals. The language is clearly intended to mirror the space in which the speaker locates Monk’s “genius” (29): jazz’s mythical origins in the brothel and speakeasy, those spaces furthest removed from concert hall and academia. Monk may have been a New York jazz artist, but for “humph”’s speaker (and the interpolated voices of his detractors) he was an import, “pre-harlem” (15), rooted in the “booglaloo” (32) of the North Carolina of his birth.

The identities of both the speaker and the “they” whose opinions dominate the poem are ambiguous. Clearly the speaker is a partisan and “they” are critics, but what else can we tell about them? Part of the difficulty is placing the poem in time. We know that Monk’s music was initially disparaged, and then slowly gained acceptance over the ‘50s and early ‘60s; by the ‘80s, of course, Monk’s “genius” had long since been recognized. The detail about Monk getting up and dancing would seem to place us in the sixties … but by then Monk was already mainstream (to the point, as Gary Giddins reminds us, that he was eventually criticized for “not being out enough”; see “Rhythm-a-ning,” Visions of Jazz, Oxford UP, 1998). Based on the idiom, the “they” who disparage Monk would seem not to be the (white) critical establishment that panned him early on, but rather other African Americans—perhaps musicians who were seeking high-culture recognition for jazz (e.g., “America’s classical music”). But if so, why the vernacular? Or perhaps it is simply how the speaker reports them, translating their criticisms, and figuring jazz as quintessentially Black American music. (White critics occasionally strained to sound “hip,” but that does not seem to be the case here.) Perhaps, rather than seek too much historical specificity, we should simply accept that the poem is figuring Monk as an eternal outsider, timeless as his music, and understand the speaker as a representative spirit of the tradition of Black American music: a listener who has not lost their roots.

Whoever “they” are, they demand of the music a respectability that both distances it from saloon, ghetto, and revival tent (and the charlantry, grandstanding, and sheer bullshit that are part of that tradition), and fits within the norms of the music as it has evolved—norms that Monk is bent on defying. The emphasis is on Monk’s adherence to a musical tradition with which “they” have either lost touch or remain ignorant. Monk’s serene ignoring of “them” in the penultimate stanzas (“& monk, / in his infinite knowledge // & wisdom, shoots a grin / from behind the piano, / wiggles his ass on the stool, / lays down another few bars // of utter genius …” (23-29)) gives us a strong sense of the artist living in his own world, “ke[eping] his own counsel,” as Giddins put it (“no voice in American music was more autonomous and secure than Monk’s”). The poem’s title says as much. And yet, ironically, the moment when the speaker attempts to plead Monk’s case is also the poem’s least convincing. Sinclair is at pains to remind us of the rural roots of jazz: the music Miles remembers hearing as a child walking back from his grandmother’s house in the country, the culture which fed the music and to which, Miles and others have argued, it must retain some connection if it is to live and breathe. Monk was clearly indebted as player and composer to the blues and to stride piano. But Giddins is correct when he calls Monk the “quintessential New York jazzman.” It’s notable that the poem actually moves in the opposite direction at the end from Komunyakaa’s: while the “Elegy” loosens once it arrives at Minton’s, in “humph” the diction shifts upward (“infinite knowledge & wisdom,” “utter genius”)—not just respectable (and respectful) language, but grand, empty pronouncements, in an effort to raise Monk godlike above his detractors.†† Ultimately, Sinclair’s Monk is more convincing when he blithely plays what his detractors say he plays. One suspects Monk would have responded the same way to one as to the other, as he does in that marvelous opening exchange of Straight, No Chaser: “You’re famous, Monk.” Monk: “Ain’t that a bitch?”

In all this I can’t help think of the resurrection that ends Carl Theodor Dryer’s film Ordet, to my mind the most perfect moment in the history of cinema, the moment the film becomes about the possibilities of its own medium. It is a possibility still open to poetry, as much as ever enmeshed in its origins in song. Hybrid forms like spoken word and rap/hip hop have gone a long way toward marrying them again; such forms might be the natural place to find an ecstatic re-presentation of (other) music, something closer to Baraka, whose poetry was always much the finest in performance (as I had the great privilege to see and hear him do at a couple of Vision Festivals, accompanied by horns). Like Baraka’s, like Stillman’s, “humph” deserves to be performed, preferably at a bar where musicians gather, with a half-redeemed whorehouse piano by the bathroom, and an unredeemed pianist banging out clinkers on the keys.

Feet & hands

I watched Straight, No Chaser again the other night; I hadn’t seen it in probably twenty years. Watching Monk brought to mind Ralph Kirkpatrick’s comments about playing the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (see “Domenico in the Heart,” 03.28.21): proper execution demands that keyboardists think of themselves as dancers, and that the sonata itself be “imaginatively coreographed.” So it must have been for Scarlatti himself when he composed them; so it was centuries later for Cecil Taylor, who once remarked that he “tr[ies] to imitate on the piano the leaps that a dancer’s body makes it space” (qtd. in Val Wilmer, As Serious As Your Life, p. 60; Taylor, Wilmer notes, studied dance and played for modern dancers; he was also criticized for making music that was too far from “humph”’s boogaloo).

Much is made of Monk’s dancing, particularly in his later years, but his music was already vividly translated through his body long before that. The right foot, occasionally on the pedal, but mostly pumping like he’s inflating something, or playing an invisible sock cymbal; or skidding across the floor, like a brush on a snare. As the famous title of Whitney Balliett’s piece about Pee Wee Russell tells us, you can learn a lot about a musician just from watching their feet: Lang Lang’s, skipping around crazily underneath the piano while he played Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 at a concert in Houston; Ravi Coltrane’s, a foot away from me on the stage at Blue Note, tapping out some rhythm not quite on the beat. Monk’s feet may look homeless, but they’re anything but sad. Even his feet _________________: if you can finish that sentence, say the last word—I mean really get it right—you’ll have his music, right there.

Thelonious Monk performs in London in 1970 (courtesy Getty Images).

And his hands. I imagine my father watching his hands, or any pianist schooled in the classical tradition watching his hands, emitting little gasps of despair. Like caltrops. Rictus fingers. And those rings! He wouldn’t play the same without them; they are the equivalents of the blocks and other random objects musicians place across the cables of a prepared piano. Monk, a pianist of prepared hands. A musical bricoleur, he grabbed whatever was handy—dabbing his brow with a handkerchief, for example, and then playing with it for a bar or two. Or with an elbow. All these contingencies of movement, all things within his grasp, become part of the music.

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say a deaf person could come closer to hearing Monk’s music by watching him play than perhaps any other jazz musician.

Alex Ross once wrote about Debussy’s “The Girl With Flaxen Hair” that one is surprised to hear it was “written” at all; it seems as though it had always been there, waiting to be discovered. Some of Monk’s melodies have this feel about them; they’re so redolent of the traditions that shaped them that they seem handed down rather than composed. But their rooted feel, their apparent ease and affability, always carries a jagged edge. It might be a contrast between the symmetrical character of the melody and the asymmetry of the phrasing, as though a worksong had been laid the wrong way across the bar lines, or a blues had been embellished at its rests and cadences in such a way as to turn it into something entirely new. They remind me a little of paintings by Pierre Bonnard: the way he cropped his images, framed his familiar domestic spaces in such a way as to make them unfamiliar, and led the viewer to desire to know what is directly outside the edge. Monk suggests that same irresolution: melodies trail off or end in unexpected places, pleasingly failed attempts at something else. We wait in vain for fuller resolution; instead, he starts over again. (He was finished; he is not sure what you wanted.)

As for his approach to rhythm, so much has been said it’s hard to know where to begin. Maybe here, English teacher that I am: “sprung rhythm,” a term associated with the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poems do not follow typical metrical patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables we associate with other formal English poetry, even as he observes the other rules of the forms in which he writes (such as syllable counts and rhyme schemes). Hopkins heaped stresses on stresses, and the result was rhythmic fireworks. In some ways it’s the furthest thing from Monk, for whom, as Gene Santoro wrote, the concept of space is absolutely crucial, as it was for Miles (see “Master of Space,” Stir It Up, Oxford UP, 1997). (For me, the best example of this is his gorgeously minimalist solo on “Bags’s Groove,” on the Miles album of the same name; the slurred, accenting notes he comps with on many versions of “Epistrophy” are also a great example.) And yet the name has a charm to it: think early industrial machines going to seed, coming apart cartoon-like, a traffic pile-up of snarled belts and gears, endearingly spastic, noise stacatto and irregular. County fair meets Times Square.

Maybe what I hear is second-order syncopation, i.e., syncopating with syncopatation, which does not mean Monk returns to the original downbeat, but rather creates a new pattern of stresses that matches neither. The old cliché about hearing the notes a musician’s not playing, a ghostly cultural soundtrack against which a soloist’s more outré choices can be understood, finds in Monk its rhythmic correlate. Or we might say that he plays second-order polyrhythms (e.g., in “Nutty,” where he works against the three-against-four rhythm), second-order swing. And then he’ll come back and play squarely on the beat, letting an unswung phrase plod down the piano while the rest of the band is swinging. It’s not self-consciousness we hear, but advanced play; he is not removed from music, but embedded in it in his own way. Monk swings like crazy because he refuses to get entirely caught up in the wave carrying the rest of the band. He paddles against it, across it. Dives under.

I love his solos, but they’re not strictly necessary. I could listen to him comp all day.

 

*  One of the beauties of the use of the third-person focalizer—“This Blessed House” is told through Sanjeev’s eyes—is that it helps create ironic distance. Twinkle is a mystery to Sanjeev, and to us as well: we can’t get inside her head. But she’s not a mystery in the same way, since most readers will not share Sanjeev’s near-caricatured rigidity. Lahiri’s choice of perspective allows us to see around Sanjeev, and understand there is more to Twinkle than Sanjeev can understand. Might the same be said for jazz in the story?

†  Here is a thought experiment: A character in a story puts on a jazz record, and the narrator tells us the name of the artist. For how many jazz musicians would the average reader (understood as having a casual familiarity with the genre) be able to translate a meaning more specific than that of the genre as a whole? In other words: How many jazz musicians have percolated out into the popular consciousness to the point that their names conjure, not just what the average reader associates with jazz as a genre, but a distinct persona—something where the reader would exclaim, “Ah, now I understand something about character X,” or, “This detail matches / doesn’t match others details about character X”? I can think of only three: Miles, Trane, and Monk. Mingus? He may bestride the genre like the colossus he was, but would his colossal temper, or some other aspect of his musical persona, signify, translate into some sort of meaning, for a character in a story? Chet Baker? Maybe fifty years ago, but not today. Ellington? Perhaps. Satchmo, possibly. And possibly Wynton Marsalis, after Ken Burns’s documentary, as a recognizable cultural figure associated with jazz. But to my mind, only the aforementioned three would be dead reckonings, on a level with Beethoven (“irrascible nonconformist,” “triumph over disability,” etc.). Coltrane: saint and restless seeker; Miles: cool, urbane, protean, ostentatious, tortured; and Monk. Then again, even these names are conflicted enough as signifiers that they could mean radically different things in different contexts. One character for whom Coltrane signifies “restless seeker” could for another signify “borderline obsessive woodshedder” (Rollins would work there, too) and, for a third, “pretentious asshole.” And of course there’s nothing to stop us from Googling a musician’s name, like any other cultural allusion, to try to figure out more exactly the reason for the author’s name-dropping.

§  This is a running theme in the Cosmicomics, as in the brilliant fable of the origins of the universe “All at One Point.” Calvino is clearly making a broader argument about mediation and communication here as well—the modern crystal as “making the world transparent to itself”; some of the best Cosmicomics are as steeped in semiotics as an Eco essay, often with very humorous results (“The Chase” and “The Night Driver” are great examples).

**  Vug is also flighty and possessive and fickle—that is, stereotypically female. (My favorite line in the story, when Qfwfq and his wife have dinner at his boss’s house: “The men talked of production, the women of consumption.”) The “fissure” that is Vug’s world and that threatens order is clearly feminine. Representations of femininity here opens up another area for analysis, though I think Calvino, like Lahiri, is consciously interrogating these associations as he employs them. Regardless, it does suggest that jazz, associated as it is with spontaneity, intuition, collectivity, and frivolousness, is feminized; DWM Mahler keeps the phallus.

One other note: writer and reader are also embedded in the production-consumption dynamic: Qfwfq inventing his ideal imaginary worlds, Vug “consuming” them … and by doing so threatening their order, whether by the threat of failed communication (the writer’s intention is not understood) or consumption as digestion. The crystal “ma[kes] the world transparent to itself” only in Qfwfq’s mind; the economy of images is always partly opaque (see previous endnote).

††  By transcending (or eliding) jazz history, Sinclair turns Monk into a romantic rebel, though that is perhaps a little unfair, given the insistence on tradition here; the speaker does not disagree with what “they” hear, only about its value. Even during Monk’s life the currents of acceptance and detraction were complicated. Giddins does a nice breakdown of this in “Rhythm-a-ning,” noting that Monk was first revered as a teacher by younger musicians when he was unable to perform due to having his cabaret card revoked over a drug conviction; acceptance of him as a composer followed, and, finally, as a player. (Giddins ends up wondering whether unquestioning acceptance is any better than incomprehension.) It’s also worth putting this poem in the jazz historical context of its publication year, though I think it was a tad early to figure as an expression of neoconservatism. The question of Monk’s relation to tradition also interestingly echoes how Geoff Dyer described Mingus in his magisterial fictional jazz portraits in But Beautiful: that of moving the music forward by digging deep into its history and tradition.

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