Jazz guitarist Isaiah Kitts
The music of Thelonious Monk by the Isaiah Kitts Quintet. Bar Centro, 808 E. Center St. Milwaukee. 8-10-30 p.m. Friday July 28
Thelonious Monk saved my life. Well, yes, that’s a trick, since he died in 1982 and I’ll not overplay the Monk ghost hand, though it’s inevitable figuratively, in my case. And if I were young enough, a Monk ghost costume for Halloween would be grand and get plenty of sweet loot from boomer door greeters at least. Think of Monk’s “Friday the 13th” being a recorded loop in my costume. And it was Friday the 13th! Last Friday the 13th of January.
Fate was nipping at my nose mischievously, and knocking on the door of my chest, ominously. But, to reference another classic jazz title, this was “Fate in a Pleasant Mood,” by Sun Ra. So, I’ll give Mister Ra (or, as he aptly called himself, “Mystery”) a nod too for my survival, as well.
Now that I think of it, the only times I’ve wondered about ghosts enough to write about them was when a piano music box that I’d hadn’t played more than once, started playing on my dining room and looming right over the piano was Monk, in the visage of his unforgettable cover portrait on TIME magazine.
Here’s the photo and caption I write when I first reported on my mysterious little music box: I took this photograph shortly after the small tin piano-shaped music box on top of the buffet shelf began playing its song, after several years of sitting silently. The music box formerly belonged to my deceased mother (who happens to be pictured beside the piano with my late father).
The music box started up inexplicably a couple of times and I was a bit spooked. I wondered if my impish late first wife Kathy Naab, who had died at age 47, was doing some metaphysical messing with me. I had also been in touch with her only sister at the time. Though Kris is a very rational scientist-type, she conceded such impish “ghost” behavior was the sort of thing Kathy, a parlor piano player herself, would do.
But I digress. I was on my way to the nightclub Blu in downtown Milwaukee to see trumpeter Jamie Breiwick’s Monk repertory band Dreamland, which had proved expert at the material. As it’s always a popular nightclub I was hurrying to get a decent seat, which meant jogging or at least walking extremely fast for about four blocks in wintry weather.
By the time I got to the front door of the Pfister Hotel, which Blu tops off on its 23rd floor, I suddenly felt a tightness in my chest that I had never really experienced before. It gave me pause for a second or two, and I made a very definite mental note, even though it wasn’t really painful. I also suspected it was my asthma, which acts up when I expert myself in cold weather.
Dreamland did Monk cock-eyed, rollicking justice as expected, though too often I was distracted by a chatty family at the same with I was sitting in. And sure enough, when they played Monk’s “Friday the 13th” to honor the very day itself, the tune lingered with its blend of affability and ominousness.
Bad luck day, or not? I didn’t give the chest tightness much thought but somehow during my next doctor’s checkup I recalled that and mentioned it to him. He was immediately interested and ordered a stress test. I thought I did well on the stress test but it turns out that I had an abnormal or irregular heartbeat.
So next came an MRI and as it turned out I had a main heart artery severely restricted by plaque buildup. This stunned me because I’ve never been particularly overweight but I would later learn one’s weight doesn’t preclude a person from falling victim to such circumstance. I was scheduled to have a stent surgically implanted, a procedure in which the interventionist worms a device all the way up an artery from your wrist to your heart, to place the stent which widens the constricted artery.
I was awake for the procedure and saw the artery – amid the other ones surrounding the heart – pulsing like an electrocuted spider, on a live television monitor and it was startling how much smaller it was than the others. This meant I was a candidate for thirty-six visits to cardio rehabilitation which I just recently completed, and it has done wonders for my health.
So, had I not gone downtown and rushed to hear the Monk Dreamland band, I might’ve carried on who knows how long unsuspecting of what was probably just going to get worse until possibly I actually had a heart attack. As it turned out I was very fortunate because the chest tightness did no damage to my actual heart. So, I can say that Monk (and Breiwick’s group) helped save my life.
All of which is to prelude notice of Monk’s music being played live again by the Isaiah Kitts Quartet this Friday evening at Bar Centro in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. I can’t honestly get into how authentically or authoritative guitarist Kitts’ band handles Monk’s material. having never heard them. I even struggled to find much of anything online about Kitts, only to say they’ve been working on Monk, due to previous gigs. I can only speak with any measure of knowledge about the group’s saxophonist Jamill Shaw, who is one of the most promising young reed players Milwaukee jazz has had in too long. The band is rounded out by Josh Koch, Juan Camacho, and Connor Dugan.
Accordingly, any opportunity to hear Monk’s peculiar infectious and structurally subversive music should be seriously considered by anyone who enjoys catchy music and certainly any modern jazz fan. I’ll be there, intrigued and curious and, yes, grateful to Mr. Monk, so grateful I’m inclined to go back into time and share with you my obituary essay on Monk upon his death. I wrote this for The Milwaukee Journal (pre-merger) in 1982 and it was very well received then, so I figured it might stand the test of time to some degree. You can be the judge of that.
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