Offered here is one of the most important pieces of jazz memorabilia ever offered to the public: the tenth-grade high school essay notebook of Thelonious Sphere Monk. Mr. Monk was a student of New York City's highly regarded Stuyvesant High School and only fifteen years old at the time -- a pivotal time in his life as he tested the academic waters before making the life-defining decision to lean away from academics to throw himself into music as a serious profession.
Thelonious Monk was not only one of the most important innovators of jazz piano in the history of American music, but is arguably the genre's most important composer. He is the second most recorded composer in jazz history, only surpassed by Duke Ellington in sheer volume. This is an especially remarkable feat when one considers that Ellington's career yielded over one thousand compositions, while Monk's only yielded around seventy. Monk was also one of only five jazz musicians ever to appear on the cover of Time Magazine, the others being Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Wynton Marsalis.
For some perspective on this notebook's importance:
Jazz scholar Robin D. G. Kelley notes in his biography of Monk that, contrary to popular belief, Monk did not typically excel in school. Through junior high school he maintained average grades, and did reasonably well upon entering high school at Stuyvesant, but he was by no means a star student. Similarly contrary to legend, though Stuyvesant has always been one of the best schools in New York, there was no stringent entrance exam to be passed in order to gain entrance at that time -- Monk was accepted on the basis of his above average grades in music and due to the lobbying efforts of his mother. Monk did not participate in music programs at Stuyvesant whatsoever, didn't even take music courses, and never tried out for the piano chair in the high school band. So what is incredible here isn't any display of early academic genius, but a much more nuanced glimpse into the process of Monk's transition into serious musicianship on his own terms at such a young age, and the jumping off point from which he would ultimately dive.
In reflection of comments made by biographer Kelley, the essays in this notebook start reasonably strong, then taper off in focus and quality, until it is clear that young Monk has lost interest in school altogether. According to Kelley: "Thelonious appeared committed to school when he first entered Stuyvesant in the spring of 1932... By spring of 1933, although he attended classes regularly, he seems to have stopped trying." This is the same period that is documented in the notebook. Still, you can see that there is something very special going on in this young man's mind just by looking at his spectacularly unique handwriting. And, as Kelley mentions in regards to the notebook itself, "His tenth grade essays reveal his curiosity, skepticism, and wry sense of humor." One of the more amusing moments of dry wit occurs at the end of an essay that reviews the invention of the household gas stove:
"And like anything else it had a bad side to it. Sometimes the people would make a mistake and leave on the gas and the result most of the time was death. Then still it was a good stove because it cooks the food quick, you can cook more of the food and it leaves a better taste to the food.
"According to those reasons stated above I think a gas stove is the best kind of stove."
Monk's life at that time was one of hard times, tough neighborhoods, good friends and loving family. It was the perfect environment for his creative mind to develop and evolve -- and no doubt contributed significantly to the greatness he would soon discover in himself as an artist.
Consider the setting:
The year is 1933. The great depression is at its worst. Monk has been playing piano for nearly ten years already, having started at the age of six. His family lives in one of the toughest neighborhood in New York -- San Juan Hill -- an historic African American neighborhood of New York City that no longer exists. San Juan Hill was the predecessor to more famous African American neighborhoods of New York like Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, and was named for the all-black cavalry unit that fought in the Spanish American War at the Battle of San Juan Hill. This was a neighborhood whose streets were lined with tenements, where racial tension was high due to the proximity of the poor white neighborhoods on the east side of Amsterdam Avenue -- but it had many saving graces as well, not the least of which was a thriving jazz community. Much later, after World War 2, San Juan Hill would see a steady decline until, finally, it was no more. First, the heart of the neighborhood was demolished to make room for high rise public housing projects, then, by the 1950s, the neighborhood was deemed a slum and much of it was demolished to make room for the Lincoln Center. But it was in the heyday of this now long gone neighborhood where jazz was king that Thelonious Monk found his voice as an artist.
Kelley writes about how Monk always rushed home to his own neighborhood upon the ringing of the final school bell to be amongst family and friends and his own little social circle where he could develop his music skills. Back in the neighborhood he would trade riffs with a childhood friend whose family hailed from Barbados, the two young pianists egging each other on to innovate and try new things. The Monk family apartment quickly became a favorite hangout for neighborhood musicians. It was in the midst of these impromptu jazz sessions that young Thelonious would first meet Nellie Smith, a beautiful twelve year old girl who he'd one day marry. Monk also developed a reputation in the neighborhood as a pugilist not to be trifled with -- not just for his own survival but to defend smaller friends who had found themselves targets for harassment.
Around 1933, at the time the pages of this notebook were being filled, Monk started his first band with childhood friend and trumpeter Charles Stewart, and also drummer Morris Simpson whose parents were West Indian immigrants. The trio of teens managed to find work performing at some of the areas restaurants, dance halls and rent parties. They quickly became a neighborhood favorite and earned a reasonably good wage at the height of the depression. Young Monk contributed most of his share to his mother for groceries, but kept just enough to keep himself looking good in the latest styles. At the age of fifteen, Thelonious Monk was officially a professional musician. The trio would often compete at the Apollo Theatre's weekly "Audition Night" contest, and won so many times that they were eventually barred from performing there. "Audition Night" was the same venue that would launch the careers of luminaries such as Ella Fitzgerald and Thelma Carpenter.
At the beginning of his Winter 1933 semester at Stuyvesant, documented in this notebook, Monk's decision to pursue music without the aid of formal education had been made. His attendance at the school dropped off dramatically. He only showed up for 16 of 92 days that semester, and received all failing marks. Monk was doing so poorly by 1934 that school officials at Stuyvesant were actively seeking to have him removed, and proposed to have him transferred to Haaren High School in mid-town Manhattan, walking distance from his mother's home in San Juan Hill. The primary focus of Haaran High School at the time was to provide education to high school students who had already entered the work force -- a common phenomenon during the Great Depression -- and since Monk was an actively working musician by then this must have seemed like a logical move in his best interest. However, Monk was done with school by then. He chose not to enroll. The beginnings of his epic journey as one of the greatest pianists in the history of American music would no longer take a backseat to the rigid expectations of society. His journey would take some unexpected plot twists before his true greatness would ripen -- including a brief stint at the age of 16 touring with a female evangelical baptist preacher known as the Texas Warhorse -- but all he would do from here on out would be based in his love of music.
For collectors of top shelf jazz memorabilia, this notebook represents something quite spectacular: It is an intimate time capsule that captures the essence of the turning point in a young man's life, a life that could have gone in another direction had circumstances significantly differed, and it offers a rare and tangible glimpse into the mind of a young legend-to-be as he stands on the precarious threshold of his own uncertain future.
The condition of the notebook is fragile and aging. It's dimensions are 7 1/2 X 9 3/4 inches. 96 pages retain the original stitched binding, but the cover is not present. Seventeen pages have handwritten text on them. There are also two 7 x 4 3/4 yellow sheets of paper inserted within the bound pages, one of which contains notes for a French class and the other of which contains notes of an experiment to determine air pressure.
This notebook is currently the property of one of the most prolific jazz collectors in the world, whose name is not offered in the context of this description in the interest of privacy. It was purchased by him in 2005 from Guernsey's Auctioneers in New York for an understandably formidable sum. Serious inquiries will be forwarded to the owner of the piece so that arrangements can be made for viewing the piece in person if desired, and to discuss other details. Because of the high ticket attached to this item, its purchase will be processed through a reputable escrow service. Reasonable offers will be considered by the owner. Serious inquiries only, please contact Louie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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