In July 1975 we were among the audience at Avery Fisher Hall (visible through the window of my current office), for the third-to-last concert performance given by the great pianist-composer Thelonious Monk. The venue was in the same West Side neighborhood where Monk had lived for decades; since long before historically African-American San Juan Hill gave way–unwillingly–to ‘Lincoln Center.’
The event went down just as described in Robin Kelley’s virtuosic new Monk biography: the joint was packed with kids drawn by the presence on the bill of pianist Keith Jarrett’s trio, along with guitarist Ralph Towner’s airy, prototype ‘New Age’ group, Oregon. I loved Jarrett’s music but yearned to see and hear T.S. Monk for the first and only time and was not alone: Monk and his quartet “drew the loudest and most sustained applause” of the night, despite painful evidence of the leader’s protracted declension from iconic jazz visionary to “traditionalist centerpiece,” as a critic put it at the time. By the following summer Monk had made his permanent retreat to a room on the second floor of the Weehawken home of the “jazz baroness,” Nica Koenigswarter, a singularly ardent fan of the music and its artists (and into whose Manhattan home a terminally strung-out Charlie Parker had staggered, then died, in March 1955).
In early February 1982 Monk suffered a fatal stroke in that Weehawken room at 63 Kingswood Road. Word came across the airwaves of WBGO-Newark as I was driving the eminent cultural historian Warren Susman from the Rutgers campus to his home across the river in Highland Park. Warren would die just over three years later while commenting on a scholarly presentation at the Organization of American Historians conference at a Minneapolis hotel (Susman never gave papers only commentaries: on one occasion theater tickets came between Warren and the paper-giving portion of a panel session; only to see him materialize just in time for unerringly, unfailingly brilliant remarks).
Though he looked like Orson Welles no bebopper, Susman packed plenty of Monk-like ‘inscrutability.’ When I saw him last as he was leaving for the Twin Cities in April 1985, Warren assured me he planned to read my dissertation chapters, poised atop the massive stack of things he carried. Unlike those 5-600 individuals who have reported being present in the meeting room—normally holding around 30 or so–when Warren was stricken at the podium (at a now-inconceivably premature age 57), I was hanging out that warm early spring night on New Brunswick’s College Avenue in front of the student center, occupied at the time by anti-apartheid protesters demanding the university divest in corporations doing business in South Africa. That scene recalled the legendary moment two decades earlier when—at an all-night teach-in at nearby Scott Hall–Susman had seized the lectern from a faculty colleague who defended America’s violent presence in Vietnam in terms of a climactic struggle for ‘civilization.’ As the springs from his wristwatch sprung loose crazily under the force of his pounding, Susman thunderously demanded that his hapless foil define precisely what he meant by ‘civilization.’
Thus spoke the mighty Sus; did we derive some learning from that man! Yet he also urged us to work closely with his younger colleague James W. Reed, the dedicatee of Irish Waterfront and a warmly wise historian who alternately cajoled, goaded and dared us to imagine why history was called a ‘discipline.’ Prof. Reed was in the room at our East Brunswick Public Library reading this past Thursday evening, as was Prof. Angus Gillespie, whose role in the life of this book and author is detailed in our acknowledgments. So too was my dear friend and brilliant spirit Louise and her husband Jack, who I had not seen in nearly a quarter century.
Louise’s younger sister was beside me in the ancient Volvo along with Warren Susman that day Thelonious Monk died. Though she loved music all kinds, word of Monk’s death provoked nothing so fierce as M’s anguished dash into the street for an inconsolable smoke on the night of John Lennon’s murder.
Devotion to the likes of Monk came from my side of the street, where I was joined often by Jeffrey R: we met in 1981 when Jeff bolted from Jim Reed’s office to chastise me for paying loud tribute to Jack Kerouac; he had a make-up U.S. history exam to complete. Jeff was in the library Thurs. eve, along with other cherished companions from our long–and long ago–days and nights in the neighboring, one-and-only Hub City.
The spiritual and creative collaboration between Pete Corridan and Budd Schulberg at the heart of Irish Waterfront made for an ideal topic in East Brunswick: the great movie is their partnership’s legacy and monument. Neither man would ever again know such fires ignited of mutual inspiration; only in the other’s absence was the depth of their shared need revealed.
East Wind Over Weehawken, Edward Hopper (1934)
Next Wed. March 10 we ferry across the North River–from the West Side to the Jersey side—for a 7 p.m. reading at Weehawken Public Library; for additional details or conversation please write us: firstname.lastname@example.org