MAXWELL:  Nellie Monk held Thelonious together
7/10/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL Section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Nellie Monk’s recent death did not produce big headlines. The St. Petersburg Times carried a 97-word tribute on Page 5A. From what I knew of her, she probably would have wanted it that way.
Eighty when she died on June 25 in a Manhattan hospital, Nellie Smith was born in St. Petersburg in 1921, and moved with her family to New York when she was 16.
Her simple name _ Nellie Smith or Nellie Monk _ belied her behind-the-scenes significance in the life of her husband, jazz pianist, composer and troubled genius Thelonious Monk.
I met Nellie Monk one time, in 1987, when she granted a rare interview to a group of black journalists I was with in New York. To be in the home where Monk had lived and practiced was a once-in-a-lifetime inspiration. Monk had died in 1982. I had seen and heard Thelonious Monk many times at sets in various parts of the country.
When I was in college, brothers were “square” if they were not “in to “the onliest Monk,’ ” as Birdland town crier Pee Wee Marguette nicknamed the piano great.
To be “a real down dude,” you had to read every issue of Downbeat and love, or pretend to love, Monk’s piano, his special rhythm, his urgent beat and unpredictability of line. My schoolmates and I, even nonmusicians, faked all manner of Monk-like eccentricities to prove that we were “heavy” and “brainy.” The ladies on campus seemed to love the big charade, so we indulged them. To be perpetually “askew,” as we called the condition, I wore bell bottoms, a smudged wife-beater and old sandals every day, everywhere I went.
I never outgrew my love of Monk’s sound, even after joining the Marine Corps. Mainly, though, I never lost the awe for Nellie Monk, the glue that held “the onliest Monk’s” fragile life together.
Nellie Monk was an inspiration unto herself.
All who follow the lives of jazz musicians have tales of self-absorbed artists who live in their imaginations, who cannot tie their own shoes, let alone pay their bills and otherwise handle their daily affairs.
Nellie Monk, who married Thelonious in 1947 and lived with him until his death, was one such saint. When Nellie met Thelonious, he was financially struggling to get his music to catch on outside New York. She supported both of them as a seamstress during World War II in a factory, and continued to make clothes for Monk and their friends.
Even in jazz musician terms, Thelonious was a living, breathing mess. As Jet magazine points out, Nellie was never his official manager, but she paid her husband’s musicians, “collected money from promoters, and made sure band members had plane tickets.” She literally had to lead Thelonious through airport terminals and hotel lobbies. He was the epitome of social dysfunctionality. Those who knew the couple said theirs was a genuine love affair grounded in mutual respect and a shared history of hardship.
Thelonious’ affection for Nellie is best expressed in his famous ballad Crepuscule With Nellie, which he wrote in 1957, when Nellie underwent surgery for a thyroid ailment.
My interest in Nellie Monk is the same as it was in 1987: Her example, at least to me, represents a generation of black women who put their families first no matter what. Even when the man was less than honorable or even lazy, these women hung on. And when children were involved, nothing except death could pull them away.
She always will be the embodiment of true black love, the kind that I see in my own mother. Nellie Monk was selfless, strong and wise. Clearly, she saw her life with Thelonious as a life-long relationship, which required her to look down the road and see the future benefits of the union _ even when he saw only notes on a music sheet.
But he loved Nellie, as everyone who knew them will attest. Crepuscule With Nellie is a great expression of a man’s love for the woman who did so much for him. I want Times readers to know that Nellie (Smith) Monk is a St. Petersburg native.