Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane
Carnegie Hall November 1957
They were not in his canon. Dizzy,
Billie, Ray, he stomped the same boards,
Chet and Sonny too
Humph he did not meet
but that did not stop
Effortless his playing
Unique undoubtedly in genius fashion
as peculiar as his hat
The angular notes
strike from the piano strings
angular dancesteps, complex,
astringent, roll like a spiked ball
John’s sax is calming. Laminated
sheets of space flow in long solos, probing
discovered corners of this difficult man. The joy is evident
while he plays, not one, not two, but
Many notes, all at once, or in rapid
Do you feel you have to get up
Do you feel you have to sit down
To seize the opportunity?
Well, you needn’t.
© Martin Porter 2009
First of all, let me make it clear I was not at the concert listed at the start of this poem. “Crepuscule with Nellie” is based on the serendipitious discovery of a film clip from this concert which I stumbled across by accident and by which was instantly fascinated. I do not know much about jazz, and cannot say what is jazz and what is not. But like many inexperts, I like what I like. I tend not to discard the remainder out of hand, having learnt that some works can gradually develop an understanding and affection for me. Other works, of course, also become less interesting with time and end up somewhere in the back of the memory to be almost forgotten.
In “Crepuscle with Nellie” I have tried to capture the spirit of the concert through my responce to one piece in particular. But I have only concentrated on that piece, and not dealt with it exclusively. In that sense the title is misleading, but by stating the time and location I have tried to clarify these expanded boundaries to the reader. The poem is rather more irregular than the piece itself, something that has raised comments, but I wanted the structure to reflect the canon, rather than the individual piece. Perhaps this is a failing in the writing.
The poem is structured in its placement on the page, but I have also tried to capture the lyricism when the poem is read aloud. It is a poem that I take great delight in reading aloud, much to my surprise. In particular, the contrast between Monk and Coltrane pleases me considerably, offering a challenge during a recitation.
The subject matter embeds the titles of works by Monk. This needed a degree of caution when writing to integrate the actual words into the piece in such a way that they entertain the knowlegable reader or listener, while not detracting from the poem for the reader who does not know Monk as well as others. In the poem there are clear hints that something is going on. “Humph he did not meet/ but that did not stop/ him writing” hints at this without being too explicit (Monk never played with Humphrey Lyttleton but did write a piece by this title). Much to my entertainment, “Well you needn’t” is often missed as a Monk title, being tucked away at the end.
I have tried to evoke the jazz nature of the poem using some techniques that I normally avoid. “Uniquely undoubtedly in genius fashion” is not easy phrasing, but has the sensation of the detailed semi-rhythms that excite me in jazz. The placing of “Erratic”, dislocating it from the central justification of the sequence in which it is placed, stresses the angular nature of much of Monk’s playing.
Much to my surprise, the most unusual part of this poem did not occur in the section about the main protagonist, but in the section based on the secondary character of John Coltrane. The punctuated “,fluent,” has also given me some entertainment by allowing me to start a line with a comma, but is deliberate as an attempt to capture that way Coltrane would occasionally pause unexpectedly before playing a note or phrase, rather than after the previous phrase. Yes, a pause before, not after, something only an avant garde artist with the skill of Coltrane could express. It should be remembered this is a poem, not a prose work, and I have felt free to use punctuation to express the lyricism rather than to conform to a set of rules more suited to the syntax of prose. This is one of those times where I begin to crystalise my thoughts in the rather fluid mix of distractions when dealing with the perrenial issue of “what makes a poem different to prose?”.
One of the deepest impressions left by the clip was the contrast between Coltrane and Monk. Initially I thought Monk to be the complex, unpredictable musician, with Coltrane the smooth artist. This soon changed with my re-discovery of Coltrane’s penchant for bebop and the avant garde, something I had vaguely registered and then forgotten because it simply did not interest me at the time. I have tried to capture this contrast by the change in style at “John’s sax is calming”.
The last section deals with my initial astonishment on discovering this particular performance. I did feel I had to get up and I did feel I had to sit down to grasp it, both, simultaneously. I also felt the freedom of the performance and its absence of compulsion. That was the magic for me, the competing impulses and sense of sheer exhilaration. I wish I had been there!