Beatlemania was at its peak in the winter of 1964, but not every music fan had the Beatles’ brand of rock and roll on their turntable. In fact, it was jazz music—vital, innovative, contemporary jazz music—that captured the imagination of a significant proportion of American music fans in 1964, and no jazz musician at that time was more vital, innovative and contemporary than Thelonious Sphere Monk. So important was jazz on the American cultural scene, and so important was Monk in the world of jazz, that his portrait graced the cover of Time magazine February 28, 1964.
The piece inside the magazine, called “The Loneliest Monk,” by writer Barry Farrell, gave Thelonious the credit he deserved for helping bring jazz out of the Swing era. “Monk presided at the birth of bop,” Farrell wrote of Monk’s legendary tenure as the resident piano player at Minton’s Playhouse in New York City in the 1940s. “Rhythms scrambled forward at his touch; the oblique boldness of his harmonies forced the horn players into flights the likes of which had never been heard before….[But] when bop drifted out of Harlem and into wider popularity after the war, Monk was already embarked on his long and lonely scuffle.”
The “long and lonely scuffle” was Farrell’s way not only of characterizing the iconoclastic musical path that Monk would follow through the 1950s, but also of alluding to Monk’s well-known “eccentricity”—what his loved ones knew to be a longstanding but unnamed mental illness. In the brilliant, Clint Eastwood-produced documentary, Thelonious Monk: Straight no Chaser, Monk’s manager, Harry Colomby, recalled that the first interview with Farrell coincided with the start of one of Monk’s episodes of strange behavior. “By the time he got downstairs with me, he was already…he was already off somewhere.” “I don’t recall him being hospitalized for it until the mid- to late-60s,” his son, Thelonious Monk, Jr., recalled, “But my mom, she would tell me that she saw the signs of it much, much earlier.”
For his part, Monk made light of the issue to Farrell, even joking about an incident in which he was briefly hospitalized after being found wandering alone and speaking incoherently: “I can’t be crazy,” he said, “’cause they had me in one of those places and they let me go.” Thelonious Monk, composer of such jazz standards as “‘Round Midnight,” “Blue Monk” and “Well, You Needn’t” continued performing and pursuing a truly unique direction in jazz until his death on February 17, 1982.