Thelonious Monk came from a neighborhood in San Juan Hill that was constantly fighting to maintain its equilibrium. In Robin D.G. Kelley’s biography Thelonious Monk, he devotes most of a chapter to the history of racial violence in San Juan Hill, noting that “San Juan Hill’s reputation as a violent community was as strong as ever by the time the Monks settled there” (2009, 19). As he grew up, Monk dealt with this violent community, watching both interracial and intraracial conflicts, saying “besides fighting the ofays [whites], you had to fight each other. You go in the next block and you’re in another country” (19). In spite of his racially-charged upbringing, Monk helped to create a musical community that was one of the most ethnically diverse. In my opinion, Thelonious Monk had seen so much racial conflict that he was able to speak about this conflict through his music – an unbiased language that everyone could understand.
In an interview with Frank London Brown, Monk was quoted as saying: “My music is not a social comment on discrimination or poverty of the like. I would have written the same way even if I had not been a Negro” (Kelley, 2009, 249). Kelley goes on to characterize this as the epitome of Monk’s worldview when it came to race, but carefully points out that this was not “a complete rejection of politics,” but rather “a defense of artistry” (249). This shows that Monk had opinions, but rather than speaking out one way or the other, he was a mediator, a balancer, through his music. As seen in the Clint Eastwood film “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser,” Monk was usually a calm, mellow, confident, and playful individual who expressed many different emotions and themes through his music. The jaggedness of “Bright Mississippi,” the rolling shakes of “Rhythm-a-ning,” and the frenetic “Trinkle Tinkle” contrast with his “Ugly Beauty” and “Ask Me Now,” which are more representative of his everyday demeanor. The more dissonant sounds of the former pieces sound urban – they are reflections of his rougher urban upbringing, something that his softly jocular personality rarely, if ever, expressed.
Normally, Monk may have been low-key when it came to matters of race, but he certainly was not unconcerned. When he was a victim of racism by the Delaware police in 1958 (Kelley, 2009, 253-256), Monk physically fought the officers in order to stand up for himself. His actions during this episode are, clearly, not passive or pacifist. Some might criticize Monk’s actions, saying that he ignored race only when it suited him, but Monk’s violent reaction to the police was not hypocrisy. He did not need race to enter into his musical realm, but when race entered his world, violently, he fought back even if it meant facing dire repercussions. Monk actions were, in my opinion, completely justified.
Rather than live in a world where race existed as a dividing factor, Monk and his colleagues created a community, a world of their own, where race was not important. Monk did not ignore racial injustices when he truly needed to address them, as seen during his encounter with the police in 1958. However, when Monk was playing his music, race did not need to exist, and so in that world, the world of the Five Spot, race did not exist. During a set, Monk was master of all dissonances and conflicts – he harnessed what he saw in the world and manifested it in his sound. Monk did not merely “try to transcend racial politics” – he transcended race itself.