by John McCaffrey
Editor’s note: In August 1951, police arrested jazz pianist Thelonious Monk for possession of heroin that wasn’t his. He spent sixty days in prison and lost his New York cabaret card, forcing him to play in obscurity for the next several years.
If you play jazz with cats, whether they’re finger zingers or rusty gates, no matter if they have balloon lungs or freak lips, if the rhythm is gut bucket or smoking, you’re bound to throw out a clunker or have one passed your way now and again. I guess in that way it’s a lot like life: everyone hits or gets a bad note from time to time, a moment when you put something negative onto someone else or they, as the Bible says, do the same onto you. Well, maybe that’s not how it exactly goes in the Good Book, but when you’re on a stage in front of folks who dropped more than a few hard-earned dimes to hear a sugar band, and you’re the lead, the star, the one they all came to see, and you get blown a change from a licorice stick or a rat-a-tat from a tub that makes you wish you hadn’t turned down before that puff of muggle, that cool shot of M., when all of the sudden the air is out of the room and there is no conceivable way to make sense, much less music, from the hand you’ve been dealt…that, I tell you, is the moment when genius is not forged, but revealed, when you can turn death into breath, restart the heart and reorder the world, so that everything sounds just like it should, a balance of smooth and static, up and down, back and forth, mute to murmur, a pleasing-to-the-ear disconnect that bothers your nerves and makes you wonder why you’re so plain and wooden in the presence of such greatness. And none of it would be possible, this creation of pristine artistry, this prurient display of unfettered brilliance, this “thank the dear Lord I decided to come tonight” moment, without that bad note.
If you think by my language I’m a jazz fan, you’re right. But if you think I’m part of that world, part of the swarm, part of a humming hive of men and women who move to a beat that doesn’t always follow a beat, then you’re wrong. I’m just not welcome inside the circle, and not because of race (I’m white Irish) or anything cliché like that, and not because I can’t play a lick on any instrument made by man or forged through God’s good graces, and not because I don’t understand what jazz truly is, the essence of it, the soul of it, because I think I do. I don’t even think it’s because I’m a retired cop. But because I was a cop, back in 1951, working for the narcotics division, creeping around in a cruiser one night in a neighborhood in Harlem where we were told by our bosses to creep around, and we saw two guys sitting in a parked car, minding their own business, and we decided to make it our business. I wish now I had recognized the man at the wheel. I should have. I’d seen him play a few times, or should I say I heard him play a few times, because that was what hit you first and hardest: the sound of his piano. You never heard anyone play like that, I assure you. He did something to your ears, made them happy and sad and wishing they were bigger the moment he put his fingers to the keys. But I didn’t recognize him, and when we spotted the heroin, it was all too late. Soon the two men were at Rikers, and my place in history was sealed: I had arrested Thelonious Monk.
You might think me a coward for not telling the cops it was my heroin, for letting my best friend take the fall, the long-term pinch, but you have to know that he wouldn’t let me admit it was my bag, wouldn’t let me take responsibility for the junk, actually forbade me to speak up, something he made clear to me that night, in the car, under his breath, and every day for the next seven years he was exiled from the stage, every time I went to him and said I wanted to come clean. “No, Buddy,” Monk would almost always answer in that weary, wise voice, “the beat stops with me.”
It’s quite a thing to feel guilty for such a long time. I’d describe it as having a low-grade fever; it’s not bad enough to stay in bed all day and give you an excuse to skip work, but you wish you could. You just never feel good, even when you think you’ve forgotten what is troubling you, when the moment you’re in is sweet and fine and you think you’ve found heaven here on earth. That’s when it jumps up and let’s you know you’re not free to have such pleasure, the thought pulling you down so fast from the perch you were on it’s like you have vertigo, like you jumped out of a window on the way to meet your maker. But you never land, you never die, and you never get over the bad feeling. Like a low-grade fever, I tell you. Just like it.
Maybe the first year was the best, only because I was around Monk a lot and riding the injustice of the whole thing. I felt a bit like we were still in it together, that the cops were the enemies, that I wasn’t a snitch, but also the one with the stitches. Monk was always in my corner, assuring me I had not done wrong by keeping my mouth shut. And he wouldn’t have others talk dirty about me either, at least not where his sharp ears could hear. But they did, friends and foes alike, putting me down as yellow and spineless, a weak person, a bad seed. It started to get to me, and when it did the itch for drugs was strong. I was done, though, with heroin. I couldn’t even say the word without feeling repulsed about what it had done to me, or more, to Monk. So I did other things, and there were always other things to do if you put your mind to it, but none gave me that same glaze, that feeling of being sort of, well, dead to the world. Which is what I liked about heroin: when I wasn’t playing or when I was playing, my mind drifting like a balloon, my body stuck in heavy cement. The funny thing was that even smoked to the gills I could make my fingers dance. Maybe my foot felt like lead, but my hands never had trouble, until that night I tried to toss the baggie out the window and missed, dropping the damn thing right at Monk’s feet for that cop to find. Some people said that if I only had been straight, I would have tossed the thing right and we’d be cleared. I never had problems with my hands before, gassed or not—but this, you see, was about aim.
Once the fire burned down—once people got used to the idea that I was no good, that I was scared to take what was owed to me, that I gave the time I couldn’t do to my friend to do—then I burned down too. I lost my spark. I simmered in my own juices, as they say, shuffling with head down, like a beaten man who is not allowed to admit he’s beaten. I blame Monk for that. Yes, I do. I got him into a jam, and he wouldn’t let me get him out of it, which kept me in it. The way I see it, Monk took a bullet for me, and after that I took a bomb for him. I let him take the high ground and keep it, while I rolled downhill, landing in a ditch where I settled, unsteady, for the seven years he was unable to play his music.
Now, those that know about Monk, fans who have followed his history, including this time in his life, will shout out that either they themselves saw him play when he was supposedly banned from doing such, at least in New York, or heard that he had taken some stage, in disguise, under an alias, with his fellow musicians sworn to secrecy. The word was he did this to keep his jazz muscle honed, to get a few dollars, even to lift his spirits. Well, I can honestly say that Monk did grace many a stage while exiled; but not for the reasons most felt, and which I listed. He did it because it was the right note to play next, the right way to take the clunker he got from me and extend it so it would become, one day, part of a perfect, pristine, gorgeous set. You see, what most people don’t realize, but what I did, eventually, after I got over my wounds by accepting they were mortal, was that Monk saw everything in life as a piece of music: everything that happened to him, what he did, was jazz. That was his true genius: there was no separation to his art: he was it, it was him. So when that bag of H landed at his feet, he just did the same as when at the piano and the skins missed a beat: he took in the information, made a decision on how to get the joint jumping again, and then did it. In this case, it meant taking responsibility for the junk, sending me into a guilty spiral, and waiting out seven years until cleared. Ah, you say, but he was playing for the public during that time. Yes, and no. He played, but not as Monk; what I’m saying is he held back his genius, suppressing all the magic that made his sound so unique, so impactful. This was part of the set, you see, keeping a blanket on the beauty, manifesting, if you will, a seven-year flu. When I would listen to a set he played during that time—and, trust me, I was always there when he slipped on a stage—it reminded me of a basketball player I knew, a cat named Jack Molinas who hung in Brooklyn and lit it up at Columbia right around the time Monk and I got busted. Jack was a cat all on his own, a Jewish kid with a startling handsome face and a jones for gambling like no other. He threw games, you know, dumped them, shaved points, and made a bundle from bookies. If you watched Jack play straight up, and I often did in the parks, he would just dismantle all and everyone, pros and asphalt legends. He was that good, Jack Molinas, so that when you watched him when he was “working,” when he was playing for the illegal buck, you almost winced in pain, your soul longing to see that machine moving to its apex at one hundred percent. That’s how it was with Monk when I watched him play during that time. I could not help but wince, to nearly cry, to run out of the place screaming and howling, for I knew I was the reason this was going on, and I knew he wanted it to go on.
Finally, my anguish stopped. New York State, one day, cleared him. Gave him back his name and his game. And like a crocus that rises seemingly overnight from thawing soil, Monk appeared on stage: walked right out, sat at the piano without introduction, without looking at the audience, without even a nod of the head, and began to play all the way.
My father was a man who spoke just loud enough to make you lean forward to hear what he was saying. It wasn’t as if he was holding back volume intentionally, for impact or effect, and I wouldn’t call him “soft-spoken,” because his words, whatever the decibel level, had a unique bite to them, a sting even, like getting a shot from the doctor, a fast prick letting you know you’ve been connected with the medicine, and then the pain is gone just like that and it’s in your veins doing the work.
I was young when it happened: when he got in trouble with my Uncle Buddy and couldn’t play. I didn’t really understand much of what happened, and I didn’t really care as long as he wasn’t in jail and taken away from me. On that end, those seven years he was “silent,” as I like to call it now, were probably the best seven years of my life, only because he was home an awful lot, and being at home he was with me an awful lot, which was not awful at all.
What I liked about my father, really liked, was his inability to treat me as anything but a level-headed person. No matter the inane things that came from my child’s mouth, the petty rages that befall all boys when they try to flex intellectual and emotional muscles yet developed, the constant tug at his sleeve to include me in all and everything in his life, no matter what I did or didn’t do, when he talked to me, when he leveled that amazing gaze and took me in, I truly, forever, will not waver in the belief he saw me as an equal and as an equal, he would not suffer me as a fool.
He didn’t like being around the house sometimes. He and my mother would fight—not terrible arguments, no screaming and throwing of items in grasping distance, which is something I heard in other apartments in our building—but little “scraps,” which is best I could describe, quick-hitting barbs toward each other and an occasional shaken fist or pantomimed slap to the face. Money was an issue. My mom was always worried about meeting household expenses, and my father was always indifferent to her worry, which made her even madder. But I don’t remember ever missing a meal those seven years, or the lights going off, or not getting a coat when I needed one, or some change to run out and buy ice cream. I’d like to think my father was a hustler—he’d figure ways to make bread when he couldn’t really do what he was put on earth to do, what, I believe, God wanted him to do: to play music that no one played before. I knew he hauled furniture now and again, helped people move, cleaned out homes and basements, even drove trucks. He played a few gigs. He didn’t tell me, but I knew by the way he left home, his choice of clothes, the carry of his head, the bounce in his step, all indicating, at least to me, that he was heading toward the music. One time I followed him, snuck out and trailed him, all the way to Harlem, to a little place he ducked in. I remember seeing Uncle Buddy outside, and another guy, a white man with a big, red, sad face. He struck me because I’d seen him hanging around outside our apartment a few times over the years with the same hang-dog expression, shuffling around like he was figuring out what to do. My mother once said he was a cop.
When I started to get older and began to realize what had happened, and with my growing sense of self, I became more concerned about myself. Basically, I worried that whatever happened to my father would pass on to me; that no one would take me seriously as a musician. When I leveled that at my father, he smiled, and then, with a flutter of his fingers in the air, as if he was about to lay them on the keys, said, “Don’t worry, you’re my son. You’re automatically hip.” It made me feel better, and then it made me feel nervous, because I didn’t know what hip really was, didn’t know what it really felt like. But he did, and he knew it could carry through to another generation, a connecting thread, so to speak, and just to be sure, when those seven years were up, when he was welcomed back, he transformed back into Thelonious Monk the hippest way possible: quietly.
If you really want to know the real story: what I felt, why I did what I did, why I didn’t do what I could? Listen. Listen close. It’s the only way.
The Inspiration Behind the Story
A friend of mine, Harry Dreizen, a poet and a jazz fan, presented me over coffee one afternoon a cartoon (‘Thelonious Monk is Alive at the Five Spot‘) by John Wilcock, a famed publisher of underground newspapers in the 1960s. The cartoon provided an illustrated history of Monk’s controversial arrest in 1951 for heroin possession, and his subsequent exile from the stage for several years. Harry thought there was a play to be made from this event, and as we have collaborated in the past in creating one-acts based on my short stories, he asked me to write one as a start, also giving me the idea for the title—’Automatically Hip.’ From there I ruminated on how to create a tale that might translate to the stage, and what I conceived is a monologue-driven piece imagining the thoughts of the characters involved.
Originally from Rochester, New York, John McCaffrey attended Villanova University and received his M.A. in Creative Writing from the City College of New York. His stories, essays and reviews have appeared in numerous literary journals, magazines and newspapers. He is the author of two published books: The Book of Ash, a science fiction novel, and the short story collection Two Syllable Men. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.
You can find our John McCaffrey Q&A Interview here.