Although it is common knowledge that Thelonious Monk spent some time in the jam sessions that took place in James P. Johnson’s house in the late 1930s and that he often attended Donald Lambert’s gigs in the Harlem bop clubs in the late 1940s, neither Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith’s memoirs nor Scott E. Brown’s biography of James P. Johnson mention Monk being present in those friendly battles.
Willie ‘The Lion’ describes them vividly: “Sometimes we got carving battles going that would last for four or five hours. Here’s how these bashed worked: the Lion would pound the keys for a mess of choruses and then shout to the next in line, ‘Well, all right, take it from there’, and each tickler would take his turn, trying to improve on a melody…. We would embroider the melodies with our own original ideas and try to develop patterns that had more originality than those played before us. Sometimes it was just a question as to who could think up the most patterns within a given tune. It was pure improvisation”.
In the recently published Monk biography by Robin D. G. Kelley, Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times Of An American Original (Free Press, 2009), pianist Billy Taylor is quoted recounting his first encounter with Monk at one of those jam sessions in September of 1939. Clarence Profit was playing at a small club managed by a friend of his father, Billy Taylor, Sr., and Billy Taylor, after introducing himself to the manager, launched himself so proudly to play “Lullaby Of Rhythm”. “I thought I was really doing something” Taylor recalls. “The piano player kept looking at me funny and I didn’t realize it was Clarence Profit since I’d never seen him before. So here I am, playing his composition on his gig! Once I finished, Profit came to me and said, ‘Hey kid, that wasn’t bad. I have some friends that would like to hear you play’”.
They went to a brownstone on 140th just west of South Avenue, which happened to belong to James P. Johnson, the Father of the Stride Piano. “There’s some guys sitting around playing cards. He says ‘Hey fellas! I have a piano player here!’ They said, ‘Sit down, kid, and play something’”. Billy Taylor sat down and played “China Boy” in the Teddy Wilson style: “He was on my mind so I was doing my version of him. You know, my left hand doing this little thing? I got about sixteen bars in when one of these guys comes over and says ‘Hmmmmm, that’s nice. Let me try a little of that?’ He sits down and, man…! This guy has got a left hand that I didn’t believe! He was just like Waller. Turns out that everybody in the room was a piano player! I mean, these guys sat down one after another and just played! Nobody had to say anything. I just sat there and thought, ‘Oh, shit!’”.
“Turned out that one of the guys was Monk! It was the first time I ever heard him. But get this...! The other guys were Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, a guy named ‘Gippy’, and James P. Johnson!” Willie ‘The Lion’ then called Monk over to the piano bench: “He said, ‘Play your thing, man’. And he sat down and played a standard, I believe it could have been “Tea For Two”. He was playing more like Art Tatum then. I think he really responded to the older musicians who told him to do his own thing”.
Monk told Billy Taylor that Willie ‘The Lion’ and those stride masters had shown him respect and had 'empowered' him to do his own thing, telling that “he could do it and that his thing is worth doing. It doesn’t sound like Tatum. It doesn’t sound like Willie ‘The Lion’. It doesn’t sound like anybody but Monk and this is what he wanted to do. He had the confidence. The way that he does those things is the way he wanted to do them”.
A version of this story was also published in Leslie Gourse’s biography of Thelonious Monk, Straight, No Chaser: The Life And Genius Of Thelonious Monk (Schirmer Books, 1998). According to Kelley, much of what Gourse wrote is made of the “fact” that James P. Johnson lived in Monk’s neighborhood. But, actually, he was not living there when Monk began playing music: in 1930, James P. lived in Queens on 108th Avenue [see my previous post: James P. Johnson in the US Census, 1930], and by the time Monk appears on the musical scene he was living in Harlem, at 267 West 140th Street.