In 1917, a gritty corner of Rocky Mount witnessed the birth of Thelonious Monk, perhaps the most eccentric giant of jazz, a goateed hipster in a skullcap and bamboo-framed shades.
On the surface, nothing about this ragged railroad town suggests Monk or his music: off-kilter, strange yet effortlessly cool. But if you walk down what remains of Red Row, the alleyway of Monk’s birth, you can still hear the clatters and bangs as trains roll past on either side – sounds that filled Monk’s head as a boy.
Monk’s family fled those streets for New York before he turned 5, and the man who composed “Round Midnight” and “Straight No Chaser” never returned. But to hear his modern kinfolk tell it, Monk considered himself a Tar Heel first, his rhythms rooted in the Edgecombe County church that sustained his mother through Jim Crow. And for that reason, they’d like to see Monk’s statue along that same railroad, his flat fingers jabbing at the keys of a bronze piano.
“He’s an American original, and there’s a lot of history here,” said his cousin Bobby Monk, who is leading the drive to raise $255,000. “His mother was from Rocky Mount, and his mother raised him. Hopefully, when people come through on the Amtrak, that statue will be there.”
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Monk took his first steps in sight of the railroad, a citizen of the black neighborhood still known as “Around the Y” because it hugs an intersection of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad. In Monk’s time, its neighbors were poor, only a generation removed from slavery, trapped in a cruel era that saw the promise of emancipation run down by forced segregation.
“They also heard the music,” wrote Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelly, “whether in church or a local juke joint or on the railroad or in the voices of street vendors in the early hours.”
I’m not sure I can go this far, but I’ve read critics who hear those train cars in Monk’s dissonant chords, which can sound to the unsophisticated ear like he struck a wrong note or let his piano go too-long untuned. I’ve read others who hear the church inside Monk’s jangled melodies, who find his compositions to be deeply spiritual, rooted in revivals and Psalms.
No matter how much North Carolina Monk carried around the world, playing from stages from the Village Vanguard to Japan, he made his way to Raleigh in 1970, playing an astonishing 10 nights at The Frog & Nightgown in Cameron Village. A picture of the ailing jazz lion, then 52, appeared in The News & Observer under the caption “Star Returns.” Writer and documentarian Sam Stephenson wrote an excellent account of that night for Oxford American in 2007, in which he interviewed Bruce Lightner, an attendee and son of Raleigh’s first black mayor.
“The night I attended the band was on,” Lightner said. “Really on. I took a date and we got to shake Monk’s hand, and it was a thrill.”
To be honest, I only own one Monk album, and I hadn’t played it since college until I pulled it out this week – making me a dabbler by the most generous definition. But when I listen to “Manganese” or “In Walked Bud,” I hear an artist who is immensely playful, a grown kid with oversized rings on his fingers, getting up to twirl around the stage to his own music.
The state placed a historic marker near Monk’s birthplace in 2012, and a plaque describing “Around the Y” stands in Thelonious Monk Park on South Washington Street, where I watched tank cars roll past on Friday. But I think a statue would more than enhance Rocky Mount, much as John Coltrane’s has done for High Point.
So many musical notables started in North Carolina: Coltrane in Hamlet and High Point, Monk in Rocky Mount, Billy Strayhorn in Hillsborough. We don’t celebrate them, it seems, in the way that New Orleans does Louis Armstrong – even though Armstrong disowned his hometown for many years over segregation. Maybe it’s because these Tar Heel musicians split town so quickly. Maybe it’s because their music outlived its audience and has grown harder to hear. But I encourage donations to Bobby Monk’s statue fund to let a new century know about the sharp-dressed luminary who walked the same streets, saw the same scenery, heard the same racket and turned it all into music.
Efforts are underway to place a statue made by sculptor Ed Dwight in Rocky Mount, Thelonious Monk’s hometown. To contribute, send donations to the Monk US Memorial Foundation, PO Box 1041, Washington, D.C., 20013. Make checks payable to the foundation.