100 years of Thelonious Monk

Jazz vocalist and theatre director Filomena Campus has created Monk Misterioso, a show about Thelonious Monk that is part-concert, part-theatre piece. Here she tells IAM about the production’s origins, and why Monk’s music still resonates 100 years after his birth. 

I was first inspired to create a show about Thelonious Monk after reading Stefano Benni’s script back in 2006. I was instantly captured by Monk’s story and the poetry of Benni’s text; being a jazz musician and theatre director myself, I felt it was just a perfect marriage.

I started the first Monk Misterioso research and development project in 2006 at Camden’s People Theatre, sponsored by Arts Council England (ACE). This led to a full production and a three-week run at the Riverside Studios in London, followed by a run at the Assembly Queen’s Hall at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Last year we decided to work on a brand-new adaptation of the show to celebrate Monk’s centenary in 2017 with the support and encouragement of the EFG London Jazz Festival and ACE. This time the show is more a jazz concert than a theatre show, with the musicians performing also as actors.

In fact, Monk is now impersonated on stage by jazz vocalist Cleveland Watkiss and by avant-garde piano player and improviser Pat Thomas. The band features Orphy Robinson (vibes), Dudley Phillips (double bass), Mark Mondesir (drums) and Jean Toussaint (sax), performing new arrangements of Monk’s music created by our music director Rowland Sutherland, one of the greatest flautists in the UK.

Monk’s music cannot be classified. As Laurent De Wilde says in his biography “it took all the obstinacy and humour and patience of Monk to get it accepted.” Monk was completely uncompromising in his art and he has been a key figure to so many jazz musicians. We have decided to approach his music with our own voice, our sound, as Monk used to do playing somebody else’s music.

He taught us to be unique, regardless other people’s opinion, never compromising. The new contemporary arrangements by Rowland and the superb contribution of each and every musician have definitely taken this show to a different level.

So what is the show about? Monk Misterioso looks at Monk’s retreat into silence for the final seven years of his life. Stefano Benni has written a text which explores Monk’s music, his mental illness, and the struggle of jazz musicians during the McCarthy era.

Reading Monk’s biographies I discovered Monk was bipolar – a condition that at the time was not widely recognised – and that he spent long periods in hospital where he was treated with electro-shock therapy. Further, for many years Monk was unable to play in New York City as his cabaret card, a performance licence that every musician had to have, was taken away after he took the blame for pianist Bud Powell’s possession of drugs. He never took another job, and spent those years (he called them the ‘un-years’) composing new music.

Benni’s text is an incredibly profound, visionary and moving journey that in Monk Misterioso is intertwined with Monk’s music and with spectacular projections created by video artists Sdna. In every show the audience are greatly moved by Benni’s words:

Everything was foreseen in the sound of the piano in San Juan Hill,
In the voices of the boys outside my window.
In my country that invented jazz and the electric chair.
In the strange fruits that hung in southern trees,

In gangs, in graffiti, in new music, I have seen it all before and now,
No more words, no more keys.

For this new production we have revised the show with further theatrical contribution from Marcello Magni, co-founder of the legendary theatre company Complicite, while my translation into English from the original Italian has been edited by Candace Allen. We have been on tour across the UK and we finish up this Saturday (18 November) at the EFG London Jazz Festival.

We launched the actual centenary earlier this year at the British Library a day after Monk’s birthday in October, where we were joined by Peter Edwards, Errol Francis and Candace Allen for a fascinating discussion about music, racial discrimination and modernism. For the EFG London Jazz Festival, we have been lucky to collaborate closely with Serious to organise a range of events at Kings Place ahead of the evening concert which explore these different levels.

At Kings Place will be joined by Cleveland Watkiss (who was recently named best vocalise at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards) to run a vocal workshop titled Serious Sing: Thelonious Monk. This will be followed by panel discussion chaired by Chris Philips (head of music at JazzFM) about jazz musicians and mental health, featuring panellists Emma Mamo, Margaret Busby, Errol Francis and Kevin le Gendre in collaboration with both Culture& as well as the mental health charity MIND.