Max Garner is a Baltimore writer whose two person play Sphere: The Thelonius Monk Story, directed by Rosalind Cauthen, will be at Woolly Mammoth Theatre this weekend as part of the DC Black Theatre Festival.
The play takes place in 1977, arguably a low point in Monk’s career, when his composing and playing career had largely come to a halt. In the play, the aging and reclusive jazz musician (David Mitchell) meets with his psychiatrist (LaShawn Sharp).
Death has been kind to Monk; since he passed away in 1982, his legacy as a pioneer of bebop jazz remains undisputed, while his legend and reputation as a quirky, manic depressive godfather of modern American music has given him rock star status. In this production, an American genius confronts his art and his legend.
Garner’s Sphere enjoyed a three week run at Baltimore’s Arena Players theatre. This is his first full length production, dealing with a figure who has been close to his heart since his college years. His next production, Marvin’s Trial, will debut at Maryland Institute College of Art next December.
He spoke with me from his day job for an aerospace company.
What is it about Thelonius Monk that made you want to write the play?
Garner: Unlike the biographical pieces you might see about famous people, this is trying not to be a documentary. You remember when we were kids, Hal Holbrook would tour the country doing Mark Twain. Well, this is not that. It’s based on Thelonius Monk. There are two characters. One is Monk, one is his psychiatrist. And this is from a session in 1977, shortly before he died.
And what’s your history with Monk?
When he died in 1982, I was an eighteen year old kid, with a jazz radio show in college. This came over the teletype, right in the middle of a Miles Davis record I was playing. The news came on, I broke the news in the middle of the song to the mid-Ohio valley that Monk had died. I played Monk records for the rest of the day. I became fascinated.
What fascinated you?
The structure of the music and what he did. On top of this foundation of rhythm, he went haywire with melody and chord structure, and reinventing. He didn’t just slide off into outer space like some folks did in the sixties. He remained rooted. And there are parallels between the way his music is put together and his life. He had a long history of challenges with mental illness. His history, his treatment for those challenges, is a microcosm for the development of mental illness treatment in the 20th century.
So this is a discussion between Monk and his psychiatrist.
It’s fictional, but it’s based on his biography. So they do delve into the experiences. They go into the history of his brushes with the law, and, definitely, a whole lot of drugs. Both prescribed and recreational. And there’s a whole bunch of stuff he went through. His apartment burned down twice. He had this period when his friends were dropping like flies – that was during a period when Coltrane and Byrd, it seemed that everyone was on heroin, and everyone was dying.
But he seems to have done pretty well after his death. In some ways, he’s been elevated to the genius prototype, similar, in the classical world, to Glenn Gould. You may not know much about their music, but you know they’re geniuses.
What do you teach us about Monk that we didn’t know before?
One is that idea of his public persona – the quirkiness, if you well. A lot of that, it’s ironic, was fabricated. He was very young. He’d just gotten his first recording deal with Blue Note. The company had three people. They got into this image of him being a maniac. The jazz press at that time ate that up…The ironic thing is that as he was trading on this image of him being an oddball, he really developed the symptoms.
By the late fifties, he was getting institutionalized and put on thorazine. Which really started to damage his creative output. And his ability to do his work. Thorazine was a really sledgehammer way of approaching bipolar.
In the sixties, he signed with Columbia and got the big money recording contract. He slowed down his composing output. He continued to play, but it was his old songs. They wanted to do electroshock and his wife wouldn’t let them. Finally by the early 70’s, lithium had come about, and they switched him to that. It did a much better job with his symptoms, but by that time, the thorazine had done its damage, and lithium presented its symptoms, which was hand tremors. Give lithium in high doses to someone who plays piano for a living – what does he do? He quits playing altogether.
He curled up on a sofa for the last dozen years of his life.
If someone hasn’t listened to Monk, where should they start?
“The Genius of Modern Music,” which is a Blue Note anthology.
Is this your first play?
It’s my first full length play. Prior to this, we workshopped it at the Load of Fun last year, with Run of the Mill Theatre. The guy who plays Monk, David Mitchell, was managing director of Run of the Mill. He and I have worked closely together. I’ve written this basically for him. He doesn’t do an impersonation. It ran for three weeks at Arena Players. Then the DC festival picked it up.
So have you changed anything since your Arena run?
Very little. It’s pretty solid. The biggest difference is that now, with the DC Black Theatre Festival, I’m working with a little more money. You pick up this script and read it , you’d say, “Wow, this is really talky.” But these performers and this director [Rosalind Cauthen] have come up with ways to bring it to life. It moves. It totally moves.
You probably have plenty of Thelonius Monk experts giving you advice.
Well, I just had a conversation in my parking lot today with Bobby Monk, who’s a nephew of Thelonius Monk. He lives in Upper Marlboro. He told me he had stuff to give me. He came over and I met him outside. He handed me a whole envelope of papers and projects he’s doing….the family is starting to find about it. Some of these folks are going to be at the performance.
Rapid Lemon Productions presents the Washington, DC premiere of Sphere: The Thelonious Monk Story by Max Garner – directed by Rosiland Cauthen – for three shows only, June 30th and July 1st, 2012. Woolly Mammoth Theatre. 641 D Street, NW, Washington, District of Columbia 20004.