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Thelonius Monk. Hipster? Sure. Why not?

Genius is the precondition for allowable smugness

Thelonious Monk
  • Thelonious Monk

Dearest DJ:

Thelonious Monk - 'Round Midnight

Isn’t it about time you lauded the original Amerikkkan hipster, Thelonious Sphere Monk? This was a man considered so odd that people only noticed his weirdness, rather than the fact that he penned, and played, some of the best music to come out of our unjust, racist society. Think of the odds he overcame — beyond marginalization due to mere blackness in mid-twentieth century cracker-land. The only things on which people could focus were his shades, pointy beard, and funny hats. All I know is when I’m feeling alone on a dark night, nothing beats down the ennui better than his solo version of “’Round Midnight.” May the gods forever bless the Mad Monk, who died too soon, but will outlive us all, thanks to that fickle bitch called, “Genius.”

— Mr. Ken A.

Some say that the word “hipster” originated in jazz lingo as a slang term for anyone cool... incidentally another of jazz’s enduring verbal contributions. Jazz musicians as a group exhibit what one might argue is a vital characteristic of any self-respecting hipster: a smug sense of superiority, which in their case is at least partly deserved on account of their absurd level of musicianship. Thelonius Monk didn’t just listen to music that nobody had ever heard of, he made it. Despite the fact that he struggled to receive the widespread recognition of, say, Louis Armstrong, it will be hard to convince me that people “only noticed” Monk’s fashion choices, considering that he managed to see himself on the cover of Time. As an aside, I still await a call from Time (or Newsweek...this hipster isn’t picky) requesting that I pose for the cover of a hipster issue; an honor that I will of course reject on the grounds that Time is far too mainstream.

Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk

So, Thelonius Monk. Hipster? Sure. Why not? The jazzcats may not have invented hipsterism per se, but the odds are good that they named it, probably so they had something to call people like Thelonius Monk. He can’t be the “original,” because the original hipster would by definition have to have been somebody that nobody had ever heard of before.

Does anyone else find it ironic that jazz today has the exact opposite of hipster status? I mean, hipsters love Jazz Age drinking and fashion, and last I checked, the “sepia” filter on Instagram gets plenty of use. But people see jazz as divvied up equally between conservatory music geeks and middle-aged men in berets, neither of whom characterize the cultural cutting edge. For whatever reason, jazz, once the coolest music in the universe, gets out-cooled by K-pop in 2015.

By the way, if any jazz fans want to take umbrage with that, do. At least do me the courtesy of cc’ing [email protected] on your strongly worded email to the editor.

It’s not ironic, Ken, but your use of Amerikkkan intrigues me. It might just be your concise argument that the U.S. is super-duper racist, but I’m sure you meant it as a reference to the 2012 mixtape, AmeriKKKan Korruption, by eccentric rapper Capital STEEZ. Not only did he drop a fantastic mixtape before committing suicide, STEEZ was a downright weirdo who invoked New Age pseudoscience and feared the Illuminati. Were you trying to say that there’s at least one 21st-century analogue for a musician like Thelonius Monk? It would be a heck of stretch, but I’ll back you up on it.

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