[Dixielandjazz] Crepuscule with Nellie

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet@earthlink.net
Thu, 27 Jun 2002 09:37:46 -0400

Nellie Monk, wife of Thelonious, was one of the great, most supportive
ladies of our times. She was perhaps, the only person who could have
kept TM on a relatively even keel (for him) during their lifetime
together. Miss and Love you Nellie.

Steve Barbone

June 27, 2002  By BEN RATLIFF

Nellie Monk, 80, Wife of a Jazz Legend, Dies

Nellie Monk, who as the wife of the jazz pianist and composer Thelonious
Monk was the prime supporter and muse of a troubled genius, died on
Tuesday at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. She was 80.

She had had a cerebral hemorrhage, said Gale Monk, her daughter-in-law.

Of all the stories about jazz musicians who cannot quite handle worldly
matters and the companions who manage their lives, the
long love affair of Thelonious and Nellie Monk may be the most famous.
Monk, a socially awkward eccentric who was absorbed in his art and lived
through his imagination, depended on Ms. Monk and relished her company.

In 1957 Monk wrote one of his most beautiful ballads for her,
"Crepuscule With Nellie," while Ms. Monk was undergoing
surgery for a thyroid disorder.

In the early 1970's, when Monk moved into the large Weehawken, N.J.,
home of his patron, the Baroness Pannonica de
Koenigswarter, Ms. Monk moved there with him.

Nellie Smith was born in 1921 in St. Petersburg, Fla. She and her family
moved to New York City early in her life, first to
Brooklyn and then to the San Juan Hill area of Manhattan, west of
Lincoln Center, where Monk's family lived. When she was
about 14, she met Monk, who was three years older, on the neighborhood
basketball court.

The Monks were together from around 1947 until his death in 1982. She
provided financial as well as emotional support, working as a seamstress
during World War II in a factory and sporadically making clothes
thereafter for her husband and for friends. She never became Monk's
manager as such, but she collected money from promoters, paid musicians,
made sure band members had airline tickets and even helped Monk get
dressed. The 1988 documentary film "Straight, No Chaser" showed proof of
their mutual devotion, as Mrs. Monk shepherded her husband through
airports and hotels.

A small, delicate and sensible woman who contrasted with her bearish,
abstracted husband, she was never interviewed at length
about her husband; they both kept their family life private. But in Nat
Hentoff's book "The Jazz Life," Ms. Monk made revealing comments in
discussing her and her husband's clashing sense of home décor.

"I used to have a phobia about pictures or anything on a wall hanging
just a little bit crooked," she told Mr. Hentoff. "Thelonious cured me.
He nailed a clock to the wall at a very slight angle, just enough to
make me furious. Finally I got used to it. Now anything can hang at any
angle and it doesn't bother me at all." The story has served ever since
as a metaphor for Mr. Monk's relation to the world, and for his music,
in which a pretty melody is set slightly askew by dissonance, or a
swinging rhythmic phrase is gapped with an irregular rest.

Ms. Monk lived on the Upper West Side, where she had spent most of her
adult life. Her daughter, Barbara, known as Boo Boo, died in 1984.

She is survived by her son, Thelonious Monk Jr. (known as T.S. Monk) of
South Orange, N.J., a drummer, composer and
chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute; a grandson, Thelonious Monk
IV; and a granddaughter, Sierra.