Saturday, March 28, 2009

Crepuscule with Nellie

crepuscule, definition:
the time of day immediately following sunset
"he loved the twilight"; "they finished before the fall of night"

twilight, dusk, nightfall.

How did it come about that Judy, my fiancée, and I would spend an evening with Nellie Monk and her husband Thelonius Monk?

Marvin Jay and I had discussed blowing the rest of the undergraduate society's budget on a Thelonius Monk concert with Henry Hall, the dean of Sir George Williams University (renamed Concordia). I can't recall the argument that convinced the dean to let us spend $12,000 to bring someone to Montreal who was known only to a hardcore group of Jazz fans in the late 50's.

The afternoon of the concert I was informed that Monk (piano), Elvin Jones (drums) and Charlie Rouse(tenor) had arrived for the concert, but the bass player was refused entry into Canada and returned to New York.

Pressed into action I contacted my bass player Freddie McHugh to fill in.
Freddie, 21 yrs. old and one third of the best rhythm section I  ever played with, was a devotee of Lester Young solos and Monk compositions.  He showed up ready to play and quickly fit in after a short practice session with the other sidemen.  Ten minutes before the concert, there was no sign of Monk and I was dispatched to the hotel.

Judy and I rushed up to Monk's room to be greeted by Nellie.  That was the start of a surreal evening.

"Come in" she said, then went on to explain that Monk had spilled some food on his tuxedo trousers and sent them to the concierge to be dry-cleaned.  Ouch!

We sat down and Nellie ordered peach Melbas for us and almost by magic set us both at ease in the face of what I considered impending doom. Over on the bed was this huge man in pajamas deep in thought.

We spoke in low tones and passed the time directing any conversation to Nellie. Their relationship was on a level of devotion to each other that resembled, to take a recent example, that of Michelle and Barack Obama.

She was in charge of making sure the show would go on, and he was psyching himself up to put on a focused , creative concert for the good folks of Montreal. Judy and Nellie got on great with little verbal interaction and finally, 45 minutes later the pants arrived. Whew!

We left the hotel in a snowstorm that registered a record snowfall for Montreal and got to Salle Wilfrid Pelletier an hour and fifteen minutes late.  Amazingly the crowd was forgiving and resembled a huge fan club, locked into a huge new concert hall by a raging snowstorm outside.

After the first four bars, it was obvious that the group was about to perform a memorable concert that would eventually exceed anyone's expectations.  Monk created long flowing pianistic phrases that could only have been hatched in a focused, creative mind.

Freddie's soft, but impeccable time-keeping was reminiscent of Percy Heath's brilliance.  He played a bass solo on the second number, and a bowed bass solo in the second half.  Elvin Jones and Charlie Rouse held it all together with great time and excellent solos.  Standing O's and elation all around.

After the concert, this fabulous evening with Nellie and Monk over, Freddie and Elvin invited us to go to the Chantecler, a speakeasy by the docks where Elvin sat in with Walter Bacon's band.  He broke Walter's snare drum head during an amazing, forceful solo.   Walter, always smiling, said he'd hang the busted drum head on his wall to remember the night Elvin Jones played on his drums.

Every time I hear Monk's wonderfully evocative composition "A Crepuscule with Nellie",  I remember that night and remember the strength and serenity of Nellie Monk.