Monday, January 25, 2010

Joe Monk


When my guitar teacher, who was a hippie on Long Island in the 1960s, exhausted his limited repertoire, he said, mysteriously: “There is a man called Joe Monk. I have no more to show you. You must now go to him.” As if I outgrew the local dojo in ancient Japan, I then left home to train with a great samurai.

The sojourn led to a tiny, smoke-encrusted studio above a dumpy boulevard in Little Neck, the border of Queens. And there sat Joe Monk, a Long Island institution, hung over, cigarette dangling from his lip, an old Gibson ES-175 on his lap. He dashed off arrangements by rote on a music stand. There were yellowed 8x10 publicity pictures affixed to the wall, photos of forgotten jazz trios and quartets from which a younger, more ambitious version of him posed in the guitar seat. The kind of guy you’d call a “cat.”

Thus began the first of about two dozen lessons with Joe Monk. I treasured each one. There might have been more, but he didn’t always show up.

Monk’s jazz life outside his second-story studio, which often shifted to new locations around the town of Great Neck, was cloaked in mystery. Did Joe Monk carry some profound musical disappointment on his shoulders—or were his greatest aspirations to teach thousands of kids to play guitar? He never released an album, and they said he “turned town” the guitar chair in The Tonight Show orchestra. He played at some joint up on a hill known as a “cheater’s bar,” presumably where adulterous couples could rendezvous in candle-lit red booths, huddling undiscovered over martinis. Kids couldn’t go there.

But imagine my delight when I came upon a tribute site (JoeMonk.com), run by Andy Gertler out of Great Neck. Finally, a posthumous CD (Joe Monk Live at Club 40—1962) was released. Like the best live jazz records, we hear Monk through cocktail chatter, glasses clinking, a cash register and bar phone ringing. How could a man with such mastery over traditional jazz guitar have never laid down an officially released album? In the 21st Century, any half-assed guitar teacher has a row of self-released crap for sale. The technology wasn’t there in the ’60s, and I doubt Monk would have obliged anyway.

Teaching five-dollar, half-hour lessons was Monk’s forte. He told cornball jokes: “A little higher, Meyer.” He gave lessons to James Brown’s guitarists, who came back to visit and jam in his little studio. I didn’t fully understand what James Brown’s guitarists did or what their job description required, but it sounded awfully cool. Sometimes a few balding, middle-aged men came in with guitars, fellow pros from the 1950s jazz circuit, circling around Joe and jamming on stuff beyond my 13-year-old comprehension.

“You’ll probably grow up to be some rock ’n’ roll star,” Monk would say, stubbing out his cigarette, with shrug of fait accompli. I never particularly liked jazz, but loved guitar, so I took to the challenge of Joe Monk’s arrangements. I now think of jazz as what the music becomes when it is imitated or taught—the originators of it just play music. Well, Joe Monk Live at Club 40 does sound like jazz, but they are the guitar lessons come to life. Monk never had a properly produced album release in his 68 years, which would have sounded like music.

You hear all those arpeggios and modes, what Joe wrote down as “jazz,” after you learned the basic arrangement. Joe glides over chord changes with seamless dexterity. You can’t tell where one scale ends and the next arpeggio begins, he’s so fluid. Most of his students would have applied the chords they learned to rock, which by the late ’60s incorporated anything and everything. Monk dashed off his fabled arrangements effortlessly, with an exhale of Kool cigarette smoke, distilled from his years of playing standards. I’m glad to see on the website they are extremely valued today. The two Schirmer’s music books I saved now seem holy.

When I was 16, about to move to New York City, I mentioned I’d be taking lessons from Jim Hall. Joe was taken aback. No name, short of Wes Montgomery, had more weight amongst jazz guitarists than Jim Hall—who wasn’t known to ever give lessons. Hall was down on his luck for a moment, having to take a gig in The Merv Griffin Show orchestra. (Jim Hall’s stint on Merv Griffin was probably the low point of his career. It didn’t sound like much at the time, when our heroes headlined the Fillmore East. But today, when most guys are out of work, a guitar gig on The Tonight Show seems like a pot of gold, and those cats hold onto their chairs for decades.)

It was a mistake to tell Joe about Jim Hall. During my last few lessons, if I played something wrong, he’d grow indignant: “Don’t you tell Jim Hall I showed it to you that way.” Jim Hall, the gentleman wizard of jazz guitar subtlety (so subtle, it conked you on the head), resembled a Baptist minister. His lessons, given to a lucky handful (Paul Simon took a few), were $20, while Joe’s remained at five. I ended up only taking two. Jim Hall was no Joe Monk.

In my 25 lessons over three years, I never fully conquered the nitty-gritty of jazz improv—the theory of which scales to use over which changes. It still stumps me, and nearly every other professional blues guitarist. I’ve let it go, believing only Joe Monk could have fully passed on this knowledge. I’ve studied hundreds of players on thousands of records, but never fully figured it out. So I’m not a jazz guitarist, I just fake it on jazz. But if only I could have had a dozen more lessons with Joe. . .


© 2010 Josh Alan Friedman

15 comments:

  1. Beautiful. This piece says so much about New York musicians -- the lives they led, the scenes, clubs, trends, generations. Thanks. Now, to go hunt down the record.

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    1. Hey Gene, did you take lessons from Monk too?

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  2. Great stories! Really funny!

    I'm listening to Joe as I type. Excellent!

    Jim Hall's a visionary.

    BTW, those jazz modes? They aren't on any of my guitars. I've searched; they ain't there. I've got the wrong frets. I gotta buy a Gibson jazz guitar to get 'em.

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  3. A little higher Meyer? My fave:

    "Play along with Monk, punk."

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  4. His garbage pail .....mosefs junk!

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  5. My first taste of scotch came from Joe's private stock (his mini refrigerator) while he stepped out of the studio . . . I payed $7 for my lessons!

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  6. My name is Russ Roffman. I had just turned nine and was given the choice to either take up violin or guitar. My mom loved Elvis so she bought me a guitar and found a teacher named Monk. Lessons I think were $5.00. I'll never forget that first day walking up those creaky stairs that led to his tiny smoke filled studio. I was lucky my parents had waited outside. I spent years studying with him when finally at 13, I got gift of a Country Gentleman. Sitting there playing my weekly lessons along with him was a type of magic I can yet begin to describe. I would arrive at my lesson and he would say "get ready, I'll be right back". He would pop downstairs for some quick drinks and return indifferent to the 15 minutes into my lesson which had already gone by. Though by the age of 13, I represented a hippie culture in his eyes, to him it was truly about the music, he was never judgmental. I didn't know allot about his other students but I did know he liked my renditions of the songs he wrote for me to learn. He knew that I had other passions in music and respected them but encouraged me to keep studying. I drifted away in the late 60's but continued playing everything he had taught me. In late 1971, I learned that the Berklee School of music in Boston was accepting auditions for guitarists. Granted an audition, I performed "Watch What Happens" and "The Shadow of Your Smile" As a result of these two great Joe Monk renditions they accepted me for admissions only to find that my parents were unwilling to support my choice to study music. Boston was expensive and there were certainly no grants to be found.
    Now I'm 58.........and still play a repertoire of most of the songs Joe had taught me.......Thanks Joe!!!! .......you planted many seeds and I was one of them.

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    1. Always nice to hear some Joe stories. I studied with him in the 70's and again in 90's but always wished I had more time with him as my time was brief. Had my lessons at Great Neck music store and then at his home in Masappequa LI. I can still smell his cigarettes. I would love to obtain some of his arrangements so if anyone would be willing to share what they have it would be an amazing gift. Thanks so much

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  7. At 62 years of age I think back to Joe Monk being one of my favorite teachers. I was only able to study with him for a short while as his attendances at my lessons were sometimes sporadic. I do recall the mystical journey up the creaky steps and heavily nicotine coated room.
    A good friend at the time referred me to Monk back in the late 60’s early 70’s after Lenny Frank (founder of Guitars Unlimited in Levittown) died, where I got to study from my all-time fav teacher Ethan Fein. I still play some of Monk’s stuff today. My favs are “Tramp” and “When You Wish Upon a Star”.

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  8. Joe had a kind heart. He was never critical of any person's musical talent abilities. But, rather would note that he thought it was great for people to have a hobby they enjoyed at any level.

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  9. Would hear Joe play that fabulous guitar along with Jeanne Olson sing every Monday night at the Old Andre's resturant in Great Neck in the late 60's-early 70's.. How great that was ...Miss those times... Anyone else remember??.

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  10. THANK U ALL for the wonderful memories posted about my favorite uncle and also my Godfather.....JOE MONK!! His younger sister, Valerie, was mother. I knew him as 'Uncle Jerry'. Not exactly sure why all family called him 'Jerry' when the rest of the outside world knew him as 'Joe'? Well, no matter which name he was called, seems we all have had the fortunate pleasure of knowing him!! Since my family moved from NY to Georgia in 1974, I didn't get to visit him toi often from thereafter. Many of my memories of him are from when I was very little, up to age of 10 yrs old. I knew he played guitar and gave lessons, but it wasnt until after his passing did I find out what a great talent he had. So reading about how respected he was by his students and fellow musicians! Joe may no longer be here in the physical world, but his memory lives on.....my favorite Uncle Jerry!!

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    1. Studying music with your uncle was magical. He made you feel comfortable and special whether or not you were prepared and left you inspired He touched many lives and enriched them

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  11. I studied in the 70's and then in early 90's before Joe passed. I once sent Joe a check for $14 after about 10 years since my last lesson with him and asked him to send me some arrangements. Months passed and I finally heard from him. He sent me part of an arrangement and said he'd send more. Have the best memories of lessons with Joe, always looked forward to them. Took lessons in music store in Great Neck and then at his home in Massapequa. Always wished I had more lessons with him to learn more. If anyone would like to share any of his arrangements I would really appreciate it. Thanks

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