Despite the steady paycheck, it wasn’t easy being a sideman for pianist-composer Thelonious Monk during his legendary late ’50s residency at Greenwich Village’s Five Spot, the “house that Monk built.” Johnny Griffin, who held down the tenor saxophone in 1958, recalled:
[Monk] wouldn’t pull his music out, and the joint would be loaded, every night. He had it in his briefcase, but he said it would be better if I heard it. So he would play the melody and I’m supposed to retain the melody after he played the first chorus, and I was supposed to play the second chorus coming in with the melody! So you can imagine what happened. I’d mess up, and he’d say ‘No, no, no, let’s do it again.’
The perversity in evidence here—why bring a briefcase full of music and then never open it? Why compose songs of such complexity, sweat every harmonic and rhythmic detail, and then refuse to allow your sidemen to study them?—was pure Monk. In his music and his personal life, he pushed situations to their limits.
Sometimes the aesthetic gamble paid great dividends, as at the Five Spot, where the audience of painters, Beats, and other postwar bohemians welcomed the intimate seat at Monk’s open rehearsal. The very messiness of Monk’s method was proof to them of his adventurousness and even his virtue. When Monk’s band transformed from a disjointed ensemble into a swinging unit, alive to the offbeat accents and melodic surprises that were Monkian signatures, audiences witnessed something that was, to their worldly sensibility, better than a miracle—better because it was not just astonishing but believable too. The evidence was before their ears.
And then there was the downside of the Monkian gamble, often felt keenly by those closest to him. John Coltrane, Monk’s most famous collaborator during his Five Spot residency, recalled that playing with Monk was “like falling down an elevator shaft.” One misstep, one lost measure, and you were flailing with no help on the way. And when Monk wasn’t letting his sidemen flounder, he was leading them with an insistence that sometimes felt too fierce. “[Monk’s] comping was so strong [when he was] playing his own music,” Griffin noted, “that it’s almost like you’re in a padded cell.”