The Troy Street Observer

April 27, 1959: Monk in Jeopardy

Thelonious Monk was supposed to be at Storyville on April 27, but instead he ended up at Grafton State Hospital.

Monk by Swierzy
Thelonious Monk by Waldemar Swierzy, 1984

April 1959 was a significant month at Storyville, with three noteworthy engagements in a row. The first was Erroll Garner for ten days. Garner in 1959 had achieved concert hall status, and he didn’t need to work clubs anymore because he could fill Symphony Hall. This would be his only nightclub engagement of the year. After Garner, on April 20, Billie Holiday opened for a week. It was her final Boston appearance, and she died a few months later in July, age 44. Then came Monk. It was his first time at Storyville, and although I don’t have a Monk itinerary to verify it, I believe this was his first appearance in Boston since 1950 at the Hi-Hat.

Monk’s quartet, with saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Art Taylor, opened April 27 for a week. The band was staying at the Bostonian Hotel on Boylston Street (the building is now owned by Berklee College), but Monk wanted to stay at the Copley Square Hotel, where Storyville was located. For whatever reason, he was refused a room. An agitated Monk missed the first set, played two songs in the second set and left the bandstand, then played the same two songs in the third set and again stopped playing. Wein called it quits for the night.

After further frustrations over hotel accommodations, Monk decided to return to New York, but missed the last flight out of Logan Airport. He was still at Logan when a state trooper noticed his erratic behavior and took him into custody, delivering him straightaway to Grafton State Hospital for observation. They didn’t worry about politically correct designations in 1959. They called Grafton an insane asylum.

Monk was not allowed to contact anyone, and apparently the staff made no attempt at outreach. No one—not his bandmates, not Wein, and most importantly not his wife Nellie—knew where he was. It took a week to locate Monk and get him discharged and back home.

Much has been written over the years about Monk’s mental health, and much of that is lamentable. Monk’s biographer, Robin D.G. Kelley, offers a thoughtful look at the subject in this Jerry Jazz Musician Interview.

Thankfully for Boston jazz fans, Monk came back, first in August 1959 for the Boston Jazz Festival at Fenway Park, and to Storyville in January 1960. His quartets worked often at Lennie’s and the Jazz Workshop in the sixties.

Monk is endlessly fascinating, and there are many worthwhile links on Monk’s NPR Music page. There are also many Monk treasures to discover on YouTube. Here is  “Criss Cross,” from a 1963 German concert.

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