Both Flesh and Not : Essaysby: David Foster Wallace
AT THE RISK OF LOSING my official jazz-snob porkpie hat, I must admit: my favorite piece of Thelonious Monk’s isn’t one of his justly famous, conceptually ambitious original compositions; nor is it some early, rollicking improvisation with Billy Smith and Arts Blakey or Taylor. Even though I respect and in some cases love those serious classics, in all their assured immortality, Monk’s fairly unhip solo rendition of “Just a Gigolo” stands as my favorite from his, and just about anyone else’s, oeuvre: not “Ruby, My Dear,” not “Round Midnight,” not “Epistrophy,” but rather the late ‘20s Austrian import that was owned for many years — in the way certain standards become owned — by Louis Prima, and which is now culturally affiliated, for better or worse, with David Lee Roth.
Monk recorded “Gigolo” several times, both in the studio and at clubs, often when he needed a few minutes to fill out an LP or live set. The superior (for reasons forthcoming) cut is from the live album Misterioso, but all are similarly subdued and modest; none of them showcases Monk’s hypoxic, thrumming mastery of the instrument, as do their wilder neighboring tracks on Thelonious Monk Trio, Monk’s Dream, and Monk in Tokyo. In fact, the song’s defining characteristic is probably its brevity: the longest version I have clocks at under three minutes. Yet the “Gigolos” have wit and humor and sorrow and a heart-ripping loneliness all their own. Monk’s sentimentality, elsewhere restrained by the sly intelligence of his soloing style, is here given free rubato rein. In no other song does he reveal such wistfulness as in this piece of ostensible filler. And I have once or twice been made misty-eyed by the clinking of silverware and murmur of muted speech in the background of Misterioso’s live recording — no one’s even listening to him!
Artists reveal a lot when they think no one’s listening: when the pianist fools around on an empty stage; when the Renaissance painter, working on commission for some court bureaucrat, relaxes his papal standards; when the writer, between magna opera, flits distractedly between paid magazine work and some of her more half-baked ideas. Certain tics, which in the artist’s Important Productions are consciously suppressed or sanded down, expose themselves in the unvarnished, improvisatory, or hurried miscellany of the minor. These favored piano runs and quick-fix rhetorical crutches not only humanize our heroes — who, especially once dead, tend to loom before us in their masterpieces like the inscrutable monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey — they also allow us to appreciate what might be most central to the artist’s appeal. Minor work retains only that which can survive its maker’s inauspicious ambitions, and is therefore often composed of whatever is reflexively closest to the creator. Working in default mode, the distracted artist reverts to whatever lies beneath his or her usual conscious adornment.
Whether in the form of filler songs, private correspondence, forgotten frescos, unsold sketches, or those B-side compilations that rock groups put out for their completist fans, I have a special affection for the incidental and interstitial wholly separate from my generic love of the epochal. The classics are classics, of course, and no doubt constitu...read more