Archive for February, 2012


Dig It, You Dig?

Words of advice from the brave and singular Thelonious Monk, dead thirty years this month. Words that go beyond orchestration, an architecture for life. Art: just do it, just do it, just do it. And then watch how art does you. Why treat it as separate from life? What follows is a transcription of Steve Lacy’s notes of TM speaking. Happy Monk Days to us all. And bless Steve Lacy for the card. Oh, dear Thelonious, my beard is for you. You always make me feel like a hotel room, waiting for you to come home.


Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.

Pat your foot and sing the melody in your head, when you play.

Stop playing all those weird notes (that bullshit), play the melody!

Make the drummer sound good.

Discrimination is important.

You’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig?


Always know….(MONK)

It must be always night, otherwise they wouldn’t need the lights.

Let’s lift the band stand!!

I want to avoid the hecklers.

Don’t play the piano part, I’m playing that. Don’t listen to me. I’m supposed to be accompanying you!

The inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good.

Don’t play everything (or every time); let some things go by. Some music just imagined. What you don’t play can be more important that what you do.

A note can be small as a pin or as big as the world, it depends on your imagination.

Stay in shape! Sometimes a musician waits for a gig, and when it comes, he’s out of shape and can’t make it.

When you’re swinging, swing some more.

(What should we wear tonight? Sharp as possible!)

Always leave them wanting more.

Don’t sound anybody for a gig, just be on the scene. These pieces were written so as to have something to play and get cats interested enough to come to rehearsal.

You’ve got it! If you don’t want to play, tell a joke or dance, but in any case, you got it! (To a drummer who didn’t want to solo)

Whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along and do it. A genius is the one most like himself.

They tried to get me to hate white people, but someone would always come along and spoil it.


The Widow

Snow can be a notorious memory stimulator. Last Saturday, when we experienced what felt like winter weather for the first time in a long time, I was having dinner with a gay female friend who works mostly in Los Angeles. We were just catching up, and had yet to order, when my friend received a text from a woman friend, also gay, in Los Angeles. Whitney Houston was dead. There was nothing to say. We looked out the restaurant window, and the snow began to fall. So did the memories, not in droves, but in flakes. Whitney Houston’s alternately powerful and bland resonance for us was not inseparable from our queerness. Indeed, the gorgeous star who had been circumspect about her personal life until she married the already played out but seemingly indomitable teen performer, Bobby Brown, in 1992, was less the author of a touchingly open, gospel-trained voice trying to find meaning in frequently meaningless lyrics, than the beloved friend of a woman named Robyn Crawford, who had been Houston’s closest companion since the singer was sixteen years old. (Crawford was also Houston’s longtime executive assistant.)

In the early nineteen-eighties, one sometimes saw Crawford in those places where women of color then gathered—the Duchess on Seventh Avenue South, say, or the Cubby Hole. In those small, self-protective-by-necessity worlds, everyone knew what everyone else did, and with whom, and Crawford was often spoken of in the same breath as the lovely Houston, who had modeled for Essence, and was the daughter of Cissy Houston, herself the cousin of Dionne Warwick. That was all we knew. But as Houston’s career overwhelmed her personality—every significant pop star suffers this fate; often they don’t live long enough to reverse the order—she was still “our” Whitney down there, near Christopher Street, in the West Village: a perforce closeted superstar who had to make a living because she knew gay didn’t pay.

This was familiar to us, particularly when it came to those black female performers, ranging from Bessie Smith to Ethel Waters to Billie Holiday, who skipped over the gay parts of themselves, let alone their milieu, in order to be someone’s idea of femininity, but whose? Whitney Houston always looked like a “femme”: coiffed and sleek, a Jersey girl who could be tough, but she had an even butcher personal assistant who could deal, if it came to that. Houston grew up musically and otherwise in a black Baptist church, where sin hangs heavy in the air, and on the heart, and queerness is the last thing an intolerant population cleaving to Jesus and “correctness” wants to deal with. To be queer is to question if not sully black conservatism, with it’s rather complicated relationship to heterosexuality as the paradigm of “real” love, while homosexuality is viewed as a white-bred or “European” perversion. And black conservatism shuts its eyes to uncategorizable flowers. That Houston was able to walk in that field as long as she did is a testament to her strength in her difference.

But the pop world is just as conventional as the black universe Houston grew up in; in both, appearances are considered deep because the world responds to the shallow. As Houston’s fame increased, and she was sanctified by marriage, she drove a wedge between the world she and Crawford inhabited together, becoming a martyr to heterosexuality. (At one point it was said that Houston would appear in a remake of “A Star is Born,” co-starring Bobby Brown. How much would the film have meant if it were about a female superstar who came out about her gay past without offing herself?) Still, Crawford, and what she symbolized, would not leave Houston alone. In 2002, Diane Sawyer interviewed the singer and her then husband in their Atlanta home. Sawyer asked about Crawford, and Whitney, looking double-crossed and angry, said to the camera, and presumably Crawford: “And I love ya.” Get over it. It’s interesting that Houston thought of the camera eye—her most consistent companion for decades before her death, and now forever—was Crawford, her no doubt most steadying love, and honest influence.