March is Women’s History Month, and personally, there isn’t a more fitting honor than talking to my mother for Alternate Takes’ Growing Up Jazz series. As many of you now know, jazz has been my lifelong soundtrack. There aren’t many things (if any) that have influenced me more than the artists and recorded music I grew up listening to. For this series, I wanted to dig deeper — beyond my own experiences — to the source of my influence. Through this candid interview with my mom, I’m able to have a greater appreciation for the gifts that have shaped my world, and hers. From her culturally rich neighborhood, to the musicians who would have everlasting effects on her life, to her close relationship with her uncle, Thelonious Monk, my mother sat down for a rare interview to discuss the roots that are still impacting us, generation after generation.
“Lyman Place was a very unique block,” Mom says of the one street long block, which she grew up on, in the Bronx, New York. “There was so much talent. You had people like Elmo Hope and Leo Mitchell. You had rock ‘n roll writers like Genie Kemp, who wrote ‘Church Bells May Ring’. You had Larry Locke, who wrote a tune for Little Anthony and the Imperials, and producer Phil Spector was in my sixth grade class. And we had lots of music venues in the neighborhood. The two neighboring streets were Freeman Street and 169th Street. On 169th Street there was Goodson’s Town and Thelonious played there. Shirley Scott, Jimmy Smith… they all used to play there. A few blocks away, there was The Blue Morocco, where Nancy Wilson and Gloria Lynn and a lot of folks used to perform. Then there was the 845 Club on Prospect Avenue, which was about four blocks up. Everything was within walking distance. Miles Davis played at the 845. Thelonious would come by, but I think it was kind of a joke that he would never sit down and play, but he would participate as far as his presence, and it was a hang. My friend Robert Gumbs, who was about the age of 17 at the time, and a couple of his friends were actually responsible for having regular jazz performances there. They convinced the manager to bring in this type of music. So the neighborhood was pretty rich. And then Maxine Sullivan…” Pausing, as though not to go on and on, mom seemed to be having her own revelation about just how much history ran through this four or five block radius. “Tina Brooks grew up not far from me, on Boston Road, a few blocks up the street,” she continued. “Then there was my junior high school, Junior High 40. A lot of musicians went there like Jimmy Owens and Larry Gales. [General] Colin Powell went there, too.”
Growing Up Jazz (With Monk)
“That was my normal with Nellie and Thelonious,” she says of growing up under the love and direction of a jazz icon. “I didn’t spend a lot of time in other children’s houses, either. That wasn’t really allowed, so I didn’t start seeing any differences until the rare occasion when I would, and their houses just seemed… strange…. boring. They didn’t seem very lively. There was no house that I preferred to be in besides my own. Most children want to go here or there, but everybody wanted to come to our house. I can still remember seeing Nina Simone coming down the hall and sitting on the couch and my father making some of his smothered onions. He could take the simplest food and make it so tasty. I remember the laughter. It was very normal, until people would speak to me in the street, and people would say, “How’s Monk?!” Then we would see him in the newspaper. But even going to the clubs, it was just Uncle Thelonious playing. I can still remember my sisters and brothers and I, all seated there, and I can still see Coltrane in the kitchen area eating a peanut butter sandwich, and not really having very much to say. But being the niece of Thelonious, it was always like it was their pleasure to meet us. We always felt like we were somebody. We were on equal par in that way. Family was everything, and he made sure that everyone knew that.”
“One of my fondest memories is of “Played Twice”. There are some [songs of Monk’s] that make me feel a bit melancholy. When I would play that song, I would ‘play it twice’ and many more times. And I used to like to dance to it, and one day — we very rarely asked him to play anything, he would just sit to the piano and we would enjoy — I asked him to play that for me, and then I started dancing to it. After he saw that I was enjoying the dance, he just took it out! He just kept playing it, and he just started laughing and I started laughing… that was a real fun moment.
Timing Is Everything
“I had cooked some fried chicken livers, rice and gravy, and it must have been one o’clock in the morning. There was no real schedule for anything… we didn’t do clocks [laughs]. But I’ll never forget it was the very next morning, which was really just about five or six hours later, and the food was still on the stove, and I threw it out. And Thelonious came out of the room looking for the food, and I said, ‘I threw it out; it was out all night.’ And he said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well I figured it went bad.’ So he said, ‘So you make a turkey on Thanksgiving and you make all that food early in the morning…you eat that all day long, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ So he said, ‘Well, because it was nightfall you thought it needed to go in the garbage???’ And by the time he finished with that I felt silly [laughs]. Because we were actually talking about a few hours, and I had never thought about that. I thought once you go to sleep and wake up… but when you think about time. He said, “Because timing is everything.” And timing is everything.
At a time where misogyny in jazz was so rampant, Monk was a great admirer of women in jazz. He also had a great reverence for the women in his personal life. Musically, he paid endearing homage to his wife (“Crepuscule With Nellie”), his sister-in-law (“Skippy”) and his niece (“Jackie-ing”). As part of the village who raised my mother, he also took great pride in this role. “He respected women musically, as mothers, teachers, guidance counselors, if you will, and he also respected their musical ear, which a lot of musicians for some reason, didn’t do,” Mom explains. “I guess just like in sports. This was before my time, but it carried on to where I would witness it: Whenever he would write a tune, he always took it to my mother for her thoughts. That’s what he thought of her musical ear. And so he respected women on every level. He was also a great protector, and you always felt the security, which is very important in a woman’s upbringing. It gave me a great sense of security and I always felt that I was somebody. Even in public, the way we would be addressed when we were with him, and without him. And he carried himself in such a way that he could demand that kind of respect for us in his absence. So I was always very proud. He and Nellie would also explain his life to us as children and over and over again as we got older, so even though you didn’t totally understand what they were saying on some levels, when you heard it again… he was constantly feeding. Because I guess he knew that we would hear a lot of conflicting stories, so no matter what came at us, we were bulletproof… I wouldn’t care what it was. And even if it had validity to it, it didn’t affect us at all. The negativity never affected us. Thinking about it now, that was really something. But… we were one. We were strong, and it was like an unconditional love relationship to protect him as he protected us, and it’s just amazing to accomplish that. They did a hell of a job in our grooming in that way. And we stood very strong, and we still do to this day. Through his teaching, we had an understanding of what money was, and what you should and shouldn’t do for it. He would always say, ‘In life, be careful what you compromise.’ Always know in all directions. Always, meaning forever and in all ways. And had he not lived by those rules, he, of course, would not be who he is. And so he could have made money many, many years before he started making money, but by not compromising, you really win in the end. So, money comes when it’s right and for the right reasons. And so in that kind of teaching, people have come to us — not just me, but my other brothers and sisters — with all kinds of ideas to write about him, [or ask about] “family secrets” and all the things they don’t know, which is a lot. And it’s never been appealing, it’s never been a question or a waver. It’s almost offensive for you to ask. To this day, if someone asks a question about him, we’re reluctant to what we give up. And so that’s in stone.”♦