Undiscovered Gold (The life of Joe Monk)
Joe Monk played hunched over, hugging his instrument. It was an emotional appeal to the visual senses, though perhaps not on purpose. Monk was an emotional player. One of his many students says when Monk played, it looked as though the talent did not come easily. Monk played like an angel, and it was easy to him. It’s just that the talent gave him grief.
No one knows for sure because there isn’t much to know about Joe Monk, aside from an ever-dwindling reserve of surviving students, all of them with one or more variations on the same story about him. There’s also a live recording, the only one of its kind. It was the only time the audiophobic Monk was ever captured for posterity. That tape and those stories are all we have. My brother was that student mentioned above. My father was another.
The discovery of the genius guitarist begins with the hunt for an accordion teacher. The lessons were for another one of my siblings. The hunt led my father to a studio in Little Neck, NY. He went to the studio and found the accordion teacher.
There was some splendid jazz guitar coming from somewhere down the hallway.
My father thought it sounded like Joe Pass. He wasn’t alone. Many thought Monk’s playing resembled Joe Pass. My father took a walk down the hallway and found Monk in his studio. He looked like a longshoreman or a truck-driver – a beefy face, sunken eyes – he could have been a Paddy Chayefsky protagonist.
My father began taking lessons. Joe gave him some arrangements. He wrote them off the top of his head – as my father put it, “Like he was writing a letter.” Jazz standards for solo guitar. Monk ran through the arrangement.
“You make it look so easy,” my father said, after one such demonstration.
Monk’s rejoinder was one he gave many times. Like a solo, there were stop phrases and resolutions, variations on a theme. But the familiar song underneath was always there.
“When did you ever sit in a room for eight hours and practice? When I was a kid, my friends thought I was weird. They’d say, ‘C’mon, Monk, c’mon out and play ball.’ And I’d say, I can’t. I’m practicing my guitar.’ And they’d say, “That Monk is weird, man.'”
Monk was a blue collar guitarist. He seemed unwilling to admit he had a gift. He seemed to prefer instead the story of a man who sacrificed a third of his life for his work, and that it was the only way he could have gotten there.
My father went to see his teacher perform live. After the gig, Monk sat down for a drink. Monk always sat down for a drink. During a lull in the conversation, my father began to scat along to the music on the jukebox.
“You can do that?” said Monk. “Why can’t you do that on the guitar?”
My father was flummoxed.
“You’re afraid of making mistakes, aren’t you?”
Monk told my father to ignore technicality for solos, forget mistakes, just play the notes in your head, the same notes you sing when you scat along to music.
Monk made it sound easy too.
The drink was a friend to Joe Monk. My father remembers showing up for lessons at Monk’s relocated studio – a room above Clancy’s Bar in Little Neck, only to arrive to a sign on the door.
Mr. Monk is sick
Perhaps alcohol was meant to remedy whatever disease Joe Monk had that would not allow him to admit he was a genius. His lessons were technical. His playing was technical. It was all about fingering for Joe Monk.
How then does one suppose technicality comes into play in the following scene: Joe Monk sits, hunched over, hugging his guitar. He begins a run up the neck. But the first two or three notes are barely audible. As far as the people in the back of the club are concerned, they aren’t audible at all. The run continues, a galloping mix of arpeggios and grace notes, growing louder as the line comes to its resolution.
Technical, sure. It’s all in the fingering, in the touch.
So is sculpture.
One recording of Joe Monk survives. A gig from 1962 at Club Forty on Long Island. My father once asked Monk why he never recorded any of his playing.
“No,” said Monk. “No recording.” That was his answer.
A man named Ray Gogarty sneaked a tape recorder into the club and recorded the gig. The recording captures something that never was.
Joe Monk preferred teaching to playing gigs. “I enjoy the kids,” he said. He quit playing clubs.
That Monk is weird, man. All he wants to do is play his guitar.
Hear for yourself. The sound of a ghost of a life.
This article was written by Note Show Contributor Paul L.