Two of the greatest composers for piano in the 20th century (though admittedly Erik Satie began in the 19th) were both also noted eccentrics. As Roger Shattuck relates in The Banquet Years, Satie cultivated his eccentricity: “[I]t is as if Satie turned his career into a series of scandals in order to complete the record of escapades that had distinguished his Montmartre days. For him scandal was both deliberate and inevitable in that it sprang from his uncompromising manner of following his own bent, of ignoring what was expected of him, and of burning his bridges behind him. He was, in the words of the Irish saying, ‘dead, but he won’t lie down.’ ” (1) He was, on the other hand, said to be warm and charming, though intensely devoted to his music.
Monk, too, was well known for eccentric, sometimes even bizarre behavior. Anyone who has watched his concert films has seen him stand up and dance while one of his musicians is taking a solo, turning in circles and seemingly lost in his own world. (However, one should note that inevitably he returns to the piano and sits at precisely the moment he is required to resume playing.) He frequently spoke gnomically in response to stupid questions and also engaged in long silences when not performing. “He got a kick out of fooling people,” says his most recent biographer, Robin D.G. Kelley, “particularly those whom he thought were too lazy or afraid to think for themselves. One of his favorite pranks was to stare intensely at a spot on the ceiling or in the sky, either in a crowded room or on a street corner. Invariably, several people would look up with him, searching for whatever elusive object apparently
fascinated him. It was an experiment in mass psychology that brought him great amusement.”(2) As Monk himself famously said, “Sometimes it’s to your advantage for people to think you’re crazy.”(3)
Sadly however, Monk’s life was shadowed by genuine mental illness, which worsened as he aged and eventually drove him into a retirement characterized by almost complete silence. According to Kelley, he was bipolar with symptoms noticeable at least as early as the 1940s, exacerbated by his heavy use of alcohol and drugs.(4)
Nevertheless, both men, despite internal and external challenges, even resistance from their respective musical establishments, managed each to create a body of work remarkable for its freshness, originality, even genius.
Satie’s great achievement lay in his freeing French music from the overpowering influence of German romanticism, Wagner in particular. He paved the way for Debussy, Ravel (whom he taught and who revered him), and other younger composers. His compositions alternate between serene and intense, delicate and hard-edged, humorous and deeply serious, often in the same piece. Though a few of his better known works, for example GymnopĂ©die No. 1, have almost become clichĂ©s due to their overuse in films, commercials, et al., they remain fresh and bestow their beauty when one simply listens—they never stale. His experience playing in cafĂ©s and cabarets permeates his work and imparts charm and humor to many of his compositions. His talent was not only musical; he often wrote very funny—even surrealistic—instructions above the staffs of his scores, one of the best being “Like a nightingale
with a toothache.”
Thelonious Monk’s compositions likewise contain a great deal of wit and playfulness. Listen for example to the jaunty “Boo Boo’s Birthday” from Underground (and don’t overlook the cover depicting Monk as a revolutionary in hiding, bedecked with weapons, the most powerful of which is surely the piano). Or the paradoxically titled “Ugly Beauty” (from the same album), which belies the “ugly” in the title, or “Crepuscule With Nellie”—one could go on ad infinitum citing favorite examples. All the Monk trademarks—the powerful attack on the keyboard alternating with passages of the most delicate lyricism, the angular progressions, the seemingly impossible chords that Monk reaches with his large hands, the humorous titles—abound in all his work. The perfect logic of his compositions that Wynton Marsalis speaks of in Ken Burns’ Jazz in no way excludes passion, flights of daring improvisation, or moments that move the listener to jump up and dance alongside the maestro. In Monk’s words, “The piano ain’t got no wrong notes.”
My first inkling that there are strong affinities between Satie and Monk came when I first really listened to the intro of “Misterioso.” The slow progression, the sense of the absolutely right notes being hit in exactly the right order, the haunting lyricism all put me immediately in mind of Satie, in particular GymnopĂ©die No. 1. It is also possible to arrive at this conclusion from the other direction. For blogger Tim Hazlett, listening to the Trois Sarabandes immediately made him think of Monk.(5) While I have no direct evidence that Monk was ever exposed to Satie’s music, he was known to possess a vast knowledge of all sorts of music, including western classical. Kelley mentions Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Bach, and Stravinsky specifically as influences on Monk.(6) It seems highly likely that a performer and composer of Monk’s depth, breadth, and sophistication would naturally have heard and been drawn to Satie, especially given the striking resemblances between the two masters’ music.
One doesn’t immediately realize this, but their lives actually overlapped: Monk was born in 1917, Satie died in 1925. Obviously their paths never crossed, but I think it’s significant that, according to Shattuck, Satie “discovered the contemporary mood of jazz...and wrote into Parade its first concert treatment in France.”(7) Whether by accident or design, Monk in turn, has introduced many of the elements that make Satie’s compositions so captivating and memorable, stirring them into his own incomparable and highly savory musical ragoĂ»t. Listening to Erik Satie and Thelonious Monk, in sequence from either direction or alternately, is an endless musical education and a limitless joy.
- Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years (1968 ed.), pp. 151-152.
- Robin D.G. Kelley, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, p. xvii.
- Tim Hazlett, “My Favorite Jazz Pianist: Erik Satie, Classical Connections (blog), June 28, 2015, http://timhazlett.blogspot.com/2015/06/my-favorite-jazz-pianist-erik-satie.html.
- Kelley, p. xv.
- Shattuck, p. 155.