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Truth be told I’ve never really found books about jazz of much interest. The music is what I love. For the most part, especially in modern times, books on jazz have become scholarly theses with little of the real story, written by academics attempting to gain credence in the university milieu, a step toward being accepted as an “expert” in “their” field. There are a couple of books that linger, interesting autobiographical stories: “Straight Life: The Story Of Art Pepper” and “Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus” are two, and now “Monk!: Thelonious, Pannonica, and the Friendship Behind a Musical Revolution”. A delightful graphic novel by French based artist Youssef Daoudi.

When did this interest in comic books begin? Somewhere in the latter part of the 1940s, remembered as a short boyhood adventure story: Mike, Mike, Mike and me – Close, Offer and Millard – were as one, glued together by the circumstance of a government housing estate, constant cohorts in the everyday scheme of things. Of course we grew apart, losing contact with each other as our innocence dissolved. We four met every morning outside an iconic red telephone box at the corner nearest where we all lived – Romney Avenue and Brangwyn Grove – for the daily traipse to school.

At the back of Mike Offer’s garden the fields skirted allotments, scattered thickets of bushes, one clump hollowed out to form a den, our own secret clubhouse where we could indulge in rituals that bound our gang, where we could experiment with smoking cigarettes stolen from our fathers’ packets of Woodbines. More importantly each of us was allowed a comic book every week, procured from the local newsagents. One Mike would buy the Dandy [Tuesday], another Mike the Beano [Thursday], the other Mike the Rover [Monday], and to complete our education I bought the fabulous Eagle [Wednesday].

The two most popular were the Dandy and Beano, both of which developed from the earlier comics of the Victorian times when they were intended to help remedy widespread illiteracy. As the education of children improved the publishers of these comics modified the layout to include speech balloons, introduced the simplified idea of what comics would become.

Both the Dandy and Beano, with some of its more popular characters intact, still exist to this very day, and when nostalgia overpowers me I search out copies from my “library”. There they all are in faded colour, the super-human Desperate Dan, Beryl the Peril, Dennis the Menace, Roger the Dodger, Minny the Minx, Our Gang and the Bash Street Kids. The Rover featured Alf Tupper, our very own working class hero, who worked all hours in a welding shop, and could, after a healthy portion of fish and chips, run so fast as to break the track record for the mile at a White City meet.

Passing the comics around, ensconced in the safety of our hideaway, Mike, Mike, Mike and me, could indulge in fantasy, remove ourselves to a play world more exciting than reality, even travel into space, a feat not yet accomplished, with Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future, who with his crew of Digby, Professor Peabody, Hank and Pierre did battle with the evil Mekon, a large headed green fiend from the planet Venus.

Percy, me dad, read the Daily Mirror, a sensationalist left-wing tabloid of the working class. My only interests were the comic strips which featured the skiving character Andy Capp, always up to some dodge so that he could spend more time at the pub; Garth an overly muscular hero, Useless Eustace -– description unnecessary, the brilliant private investigator Buck Ryan, and sexy Jane who was always losing her clothes, giving me my first inkling of what an unclothed female might look like.

As age has come upon me I hobble about like the soccer playing character of my youth, Limp Along Leslie – a feature story in The Wizard – who specialized in bending the ball long before Beckham was born.

Jazz music is a little further along the road, school days roaring into my teens. Being sixteen I should have, like most teenagers, been digging the current popular songs. The hits on the wireless, the popular singers of the period. Instead my small group of intimates were on the outside looking in; a radical life beginning. My earliest records were two extended play 45’s, one of Woody Herman & His All Star Orchestra playing “Apple Honey”, “Caldonia”, “Goosey Gander”, “Northwest Passage”, the other Thelonious Monk with trumpeter George Tait, alto saxophonist Edmund Gregory [aka Sahib Shihab], bassist Bob Paige and the great drummer Art Blakey playing “In Walked Bud”, “Monk’s Mood”, “Who Knows?” and “‘Round Midnight”. Thelonious Monk had arrived in my life.

The first time I heard Thelonious in person was a double-bill with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers at the Colston Hall in Bristol on May 8th 1961, four days before my 22nd birthday. What a brilliant birthday present. Over the ensuing sixty-odd years the privilege of hearing such a plethora of music has taken its toll, too much of everything wonderful. So as age came about so has refinement. Some artists no longer holding my attention. Of the select few still nourishing my imagination none have such a hold as Thelonious Sphere Monk.

There have been a number of graphic novels of interest, early on it being a way to read classic stories without having to trudge through pages of incomprehensible complicated language. Too much for a young mind those stories of Shakespeare, Dickens, Wilde, Verne, Kipling, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekov, the Illustrated Classics opening a simplified route to knowledge. Over the years “Marx For Beginners” by Rius, Chester Brown’s “Louis Riel” and “Wrinkles” by Paco Roca have caught my fancy, and now this wonderful testament to Thelonious Sphere Monk and his friendship with Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter.

Most of the readers of this blog know enough of Thelonious that historical details or recommended recordings are not needed, making it possible to just enjoy the story, dance along with the illustrations capturing the off-beat rhythm, unusual time signatures, bar structures. Ran Blake once described Monk’s playing as “lovingly or sarcastically altering the landscape by adding or subtracting a note or two, emphasizing an accent, allowing the silences a chance to breathe”… myself being cautious regarding any description, thinking of Thelonious himself saying “Talking about music is like dancing to architecture”.

Knowing that many jazz aficionados have a propensity to overthink their relationship with the music it is possible that “Monk!: Thelonious, Pannonica, and the Friendship Behind a Musical Revolution” is too loose for their cluttered factualizing minds. For me though the drawings have an energy and movement reflecting Monk’s dance, his physical motion both at the keyboard and around it, encapsulating his spirit, a story taken outside of the recording studio or academic twaddle.

As for the Baroness my only connection is as a subscriber to Coda Magazine. I once had an idea to keep one of her cheques as a memento, but always being short of funds it went to the bank with the rest.

Pondering what to write, how to describe this book, what comes is the vitality of the images, a pictorial Monk musing on the “self-induced altered state” of improvisation; being inspired to spend weeks alone with Thelonious’s recordings, bring up all that wonderful music, some with personal memories attached; watch the DVD “The Jazz Baroness” with another of my favourites, Helen Mirren, narrating as Pannonica, immerse myself fully in the music of this true genius who has contributed so much to my life.

Monk!: Thelonious, Pannonica, and the Friendship Behind a Musical Revolution (352p) – Youssef Daoudi. ISBN 978-1-62672-434-1

The Jazz Baroness (DVD 2009) 1hour 22 minutes. Directed by Hannah Rothschild

Photograph of Thelonious Monk – Bill Smith

Click then click again enlarges the images

Comments can be sent to classicimprov@yahoo.ca