Nine-year-old Thelonious Monk DeCay stood at his opened bedroom window and listened to the coo of mourning doves in the willows. From Holy Cross Church came the toll of a bell announcing early Mass. He had two more weeks before the start of home schooling. Labor Day meant fewer tourists coming to New Orleans and the end of summer freedom.
Sitting on the floor behind him, his best friend used Superglue to attach metal beer caps to the soles of his oxfords. “Monk, if you don’t hurry, we’ll lose our corner.” Percy Brown blew on the glue to hasten drying. “I’m about too big for these shoes,” he said. “I hate to give them up. They’re the best taps I ever had.”
They were going to dance for tourists in the Quarter.
Beyond a levee along the Mississippi River, a ship’s horn gave warning to boats approaching from the Inner Harbor Navigational Canal. The sound thrummed in the marrow of Monk’s bones and hushed the doves.
“Monk, damn it, get dressed!”
Grandmama heard Percy swear and yelled from the kitchen. “No cussing, Percy Brown. It shows you’re ignorant.”
“Yes ma’am, Miss James.”
“And don’t call my grandson Monk. His name is Thelonious.”
“Yes ma’am, Miss James.”
Three weeks after he was born, his father named him Monk because his mother had failed to do so. Thelonious Monk, was his choice, Grandmama said, a famous jazz pianist and composer born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and raised in New York City. “A genius,” Grandmama had told Monk. “I shared a stage with him twice, and he admired my style.” In an old trunk, she had a picture of the musician that appeared on the cover of Time magazine published February 28, 1964.
“Thelonious Monk started playing piano when he was your age,” Grandmama said. “He’s the man who invented bebop.”
It was a term Monk did not know.
Reciting his successes, Grandmama said, “Eleven years after he died, he was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. You’re named for a brilliant man, Thelonious. Make your namesake proud and practice the piano.”
Thelonious was a mouthful, and everybody called him Monk when Grandmama wasn’t around.
Getting dressed to go perform, Monk used rope for a belt. His trousers were intentionally tattered and too short. A ragamuffin image was part of their act. The stage was Jackson Square, passersby their audience.
“Come eat, boys,” Grandmama called.
Prompted by a poke of Percy’s finger, Monk said, “We don’t have time, Grandmama.”
“You can’t dance all day without fuel for the body. Potato pancakes are ready. Take off those taps coming across my linoleum, Percy.”
Not that anyone would notice if he didn’t. The worn linoleum had been there longer than Monk had been living with Grandmama, which was since his mother died six years ago.
The ship’s horn moaned again, and above the levee Monk saw the mast of a seagoing vessel glide by.
“I expect you to look after Thelonious,” Grandmama glared at Percy. She said the same thing every morning.
“I will, Miss James.”
She turned from the range and the floor creaked under her weight. She scooped fritters onto plates. Percy added Tabasco. Monk took his plain.
“Stay out the way of gang boys and their badness. Get your elbows off the table, Percy.”
Percy ate quickly and stood up to leave.
“What do you say, Percy?” Grandmama prompted.
“I say thank you for breakfast, Miss James.” He moved toward the door and Monk rose to follow.
“Ah-ah-ah!” Grandmama grabbed his arm and stuck out an ebony cheek to get a kiss. Then she said, “Want a kiss, Percy?”
“No ma’am. I got one to home.”
Monk hung his shoes around his neck tied together by laces. He patted his pocket to be sure his harmonica was there, grabbed a floppy straw hat, and then ran to overtake Percy out by the street.
Percy pushed the wheel and Monk trotted alongside until they crossed the canal bridge where bicycling was forbidden. Then Monk climbed on the handlebars and Percy peddled. Four miles to go.
The air was warm on Monk’s face. He clamped the hat to his head with one hand, careful not to get his toes in the spokes of the bicycle. Suburban smells gave way to city scents of burnt rubber and automobile fumes. They passed dark dens where zydeco pulsed from opened doorways. In another building half a block farther, the recorded music of Fats Domino lured customers into a bar where men drank beer for breakfast and played bourré.
Percy maneuvered around abandoned cars and over broken curbing. He took back alleys and side streets to avoid the hangout of thugs who charged a fee to let them pass. From the Lower Ninth Ward they went through Bywater and Faubourg Marigny to the Quarter.
“Got your come money?” Percy spoke over Monk’s shoulder.
“I got it.” He kept four one-dollar bills to sweeten the pot.
When tourists saw paper money in a hat, they tended to donate in kind. Loose change invited more coins.
At age thirteen, Percy was four years older than Monk, taller, stronger, and more nearly the color of Grandmama’s dark complexion than Monk’s cinnamon tan. Percy was a better dancer and played a mean bone. Tourists enjoyed him but held onto their money, and that’s where Monk came in.
He couldn’t blow the mouth harp as well as Percy, and he certainly couldn’t make sparks fly with his homemade taps. But he was small and looked younger than his nine years. Percy taught him to “sell” the act. Grinning and thrashing, tapping and whooping, sucking and blowing the M. Hohner Marine Band harmonica Monk played while Percy kept time with slaps and claps.
They were a team in holey clothes, wearing scuffed shoes and twine bound trousers. When they were home practicing together, Grandmama sat on the back steps and coached them. She knew show business. “Yelp and holler,” Grandmama tutored. “Knee-slap and clickety-clack with those taps. If people laugh out loud, they’ll part with their money.”
There were days when they made fifty or sixty dollars.
Percy hit a pothole and Monk was nearly unseated. “Sorry, Monk.”
It hurt his tailbone, but Monk said, “I’m okay.”
Sooner or later every visitor to New Orleans ended up in Vieux Carré, known to the world as the French Quarter. Monk enjoyed walking past window displays of Mardi Gras masks and vulgar bumper stickers. In the evening, hawkers stood on the banquette tempting passersby with descriptions of floorshows inside. But for now, the bawdy houses had not begun to open. Monk was seldom here at night because Grandmama expected him home before dark, and anyway, cops chased him off. At sundown Bourbon Street closed to motor traffic and only pedestrians were allowed. At that point, the Quarter was not for children.
Someday when he was a grown man, Monk planned to explore those forbidden places that Grandmama called dens of iniquity. Percy had already been inside. He’d been everywhere. One of his aunts ran a voodoo shop on Toulouse, half a block off Bourbon. If the police caught Percy wandering, he told them he was going to see his aunt and they let him through. A second aunt was a bishop at the Blessed Baby Jesus Spiritual Church. In her company Percy was allowed to be present, because where the bishop went was God’s will. His aunt, Bishop Beulah, once saved a naked stripper who was halfway up a rubbing pole when she got the calling and went into rapture right there on the stage. Percy was a witness.
Bicycling through gathering tourists, Percy predicted, “Going to be good crowds today. Be hot, but good crowds.”
The Quarter was a magical place. Street musicians produced energetic melodies from guitars, accordions, and homemade percussions. Clowns and robotic mimes performed on every corner. Newly washed streets smelled faintly of garbage, but overriding that came the odor of beignets and coffee from Café Du Monde. Lucky Dog vendors pushed their carts up and down nearby streets offering steamed wieners. Restaurants served Cajun and French foods that contributed exotic aromas of baked fish with garlic sauce and crawfish étouffée. Over it all wafted the malty smell of spilled beer.
Rising from the center of the square, General Andrew Jackson sat astride a rearing horse, his hat held high as though to acknowledge cheers from a grateful population. In 1814 he defeated the British and saved the city during the Battle of New Orleans. The square was named in his honor.
Monk knew these things because the historian, Quinton Toussaint, had told him.
“There’s the old queer now,” Percy sneered.
“Don’t call him that, Percy. He’s our friend.”
“He ain’t my friend, Monk. You’re the one he wants to do.”
“He doesn’t do anything.”
“One of these days he might.”
Quinton wore green seersucker trousers, a ruffled canary yellow shirt, and his hat was decorated with long feathers dyed the colors of Mardis Gras, purple, green, and gold. When he saw them coming, he stood up. At the age of eighty-two, he was ten years older than Grandmama, but whereas her weight made Grandmama move slowly, Quinton was thin and spry.
“There you are, boys! I thought I’d have to trip the terpsichore in your absence this morning.” Monk didn’t always understand what he said. Quinton’s voice was high tenor, and he spoke with a lilting delivery as though about to sing every sentence.
“Miss James made us eat breakfast before Monk could leave,” Percy explained.
“As indeed she should,” Quinton said. “May I help with your shoes, Monk?”
“I got them.”
Percy was ready, testing his new taps with a heel, toe, and slide. Monk envied the crisp clicks and sparks he created.
Quinton spoke to passing strangers. “They’ll be performing shortly. The best act in New Orleans.” He pronounced the name of the city, Nawlins.
Monk placed his straw hat on the pavement, positioned dollar bills for best effect, and stepped away ready to dance.
They began with body slaps and toe taps, building a rhythm that made people pause to listen. Monk blew full-mouth on his harmonica, suck-n-blow, suck-n-blow, followed by handclaps and steady taps, holding the cadence. Then Percy yielded the rhythm and tongued his harp down to a single quavering note, with a double tongue beat. A melody established, the music gathered listeners; Monk jumped into motion, tapping, grinning, and slapping his chest in time to Percy’s harmony.
“Do it like the Spirit’s on you,” Percy counseled. He’d learned that from his aunt Bishop Beulah. “Move where the Spirit says go!”
Tap-a-dap, heel and toe, long slide; Quinton wailed and people laughed. Money fell into the hat. Percy joined Monk and side-by-side they moved in unison, clippity-tap-clippity-clap. Quinton howled again and stepped forward to drop a five-dollar bill in the hat. He’d get it back later. It was seed money to get the folks going.
Sidle-slide, leg slap, chest thump, hip bump, Monk dropped back and blew chords on the harmonica. Percy did his stuff. He was smooth and fluid, a polished professional. Tap-a-dap, slap his heel, tap-a-dap, Quinton Toussaint squealed; tap-a-dap, and now Monk took over. His best moves were really the easy ones, but crowds liked them. He twisted his mouth to show concentration, feet flying, taps singing; Percy on the mouth harp hit every other note, a-one-and-two, and-a-one-and-two.
Suddenly, Monk twirled, flashed a grin and looked at the spectators one after another; they smiled and laughed.
Clickety-clack; slap his back, slap and clap, clickety-clack.
Horses along the curb stood in harness, ready to pull coaches filled with touring customers. Whap and snap, the drivers joined in and now the audience: whap! Snap!
Monk was drenched with sweat. They both were. Whirling, spinning, arms thrown wide, then pulled in close to the ribs and moving as one, whap! A sudden clap. Whap, the taps. It couldn’t get better than this.
It was in his genes, Grandmama said. His daddy was a jazzman who could play anything——percussion, brass, string, and piano. He passed his talent to the son. Monk’s mother sang blues and gospel. Nobody ever struck a purer note, Grandmama had told him. Voice ran in the family. And Grandmama! Quinton Toussaint said she could’ve been world famous if she hadn’t been sidetracked by tragedies in her life.
Quinton knew about Grandmama as he knew about everything else in Nawlins. He was a man who studied buildings, cultures, and events in the past. He loved all things ancient. But mostly, he loved music, especially jazz.
Whappity-whack, clickety-clack, sweat dripped from their noses and chins and soaked their shirts. This was more than street dancing. It was art. Move these boys from Jackson Square to New York City and they would mesmerize the crowds. That’s what Quinton said. He named Central Park, Union Square, and the Village, anywhere they danced, they’d be stars, Quinton insisted.
“You can be nothing but what you are,” he’d told Monk. “You have your grandmother’s heart, the gift of talent from your parents; it’s in your muscles and bones, Thelonious Monk. If it is your wish, someday you’ll be on Broadway.”
When Quinton said things like that, Monk saw Percy’s jaw clamp tight, and resentment distorted his features. Percy’s father mowed levees for the city, his mother kept accounts for a bookmaker. What Percy knew about music he had taught himself, and he did it by listening to CDs. It wasn’t in his muscles and bones; he had to work for it.
“Jazz began in New Orleans,” Quinton was fond of saying. “And Monk, you are the next link forged in a long line of creative musicians going back to your roots in Africa and the islands. God, I love you, boy. You thrill me to the core.”
“Yeah,” Percy observed, peddling home, “he loves you all right. Just be sure that’s all he do.”
Monk gave Grandmama half of the half he’d earned, and she said, “Y’all had a good day.”
“Yes ma’am, we did.”
She smoothed the currency on the kitchen table. He always gave her the newest and cleanest bills because she liked to stroke the money and count it several times.
“Twenty-two dollars, Thelonious. What would I do without you?”
They ate fried bologna for supper. The money laid there on the Formica tabletop so Grandmama could look at it now and then. “Isn’t that something?” she’d say.
His legs ached from exertion. After his bath, Grandmama put him to bed. She rubbed his calves and thighs with homemade liniment, massaged his hips and back. A smell of camphor filled the room. All the while she talked about things he liked to hear.
“Your mama was a beautiful woman,” Grandmama said. “Not fat like me.”
“You’re not fat, Grandmama.”
“Blind at nine,” she bent and kissed him on the hip.
“When folks knew your mama was going to sing at the Blessed Baby Jesus Spiritual Church, another body couldn’t squeeze into a pew they’d be packed so tight.”
Grandmama hummed “Amazing Grace” just the way Monk imagined his mother would’ve sung it. He could picture a congregation swaying side to side, lost in the pure notes that rose from his mother’s throat.
“I once was lost, but now I’m found … ” Grandmama crooned softly.
Then she said, “God had need of your mama, Thelonious.”
“I speck God gets lonely, too.”
He’d heard the stories countless times, but never tired of them. Grandmama sang again, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me …
Quinton Toussaint had told him that Grandmama stopped performing in public when Monk’s mother died. She had a grandson to raise. At the time, Monk was only three.
“What made my mama die?” Monk asked Grandmama. She spoke of sickness that no doctor could cure, a disease that wouldn’t turn loose.
The truth came from Quinton. Overdose, he’d said. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me …
Grandmama pulled a sheet over his body. In the dark he heard a whirr of katydids in the willow, crickets under the house. He could track Grandmama’s movements by the creak of flooring as she walked down the hall to go wash dishes.
“Your mother was a tormented woman,” the old historian had once confided to Monk. “Agony is bad for an artist, but good for art. Out of her angst came songs that wrenched the heart.”
This was why Monk liked being with Quinton. He spoke of things Grandmama never mentioned.
“When your mother sang at Jazz Fest,” Quinton said, “you couldn’t get within fifty yards of the stage. If she and your daddy played a barrelhouse, news flashed around the Quarter like burning gas. There’d be so many people they couldn’t get inside. Musicians came from other joints to stand in the street and listen. Your daddy could lay down some sounds on a piano.”
“Talk about my daddy, Quinton.”
“He was a handsome man. Educated. He could read sheet music he’d never seen without missing a note. He went to Juilliard in New York City, a very famous school, and might have ended up playing with a symphony if it hadn’t been for jazz. Did you know that?”
“You told me.”
“Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, he played everything. But jazz was his fever, and in that he was without equal. He was my friend, and I cared for him, as indeed I care for you, Monk.”
In the musty hallway of Grandmama’s house there was an autographed photo of Dean DeCay, playfully signed “Tooth.” The nickname, applied by another musician, had stuck.
Grandmama called her corridor of photographs the rogue’s gallery. There were pictures of Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, and the Neville Brothers.
Also on that wall there was a photograph of Monk’s mother wearing a white dress, singing in a church choir. Many times Monk had stared at the image searching for his features in her face. Grandmama said he had his mother’s eyes, but Monk couldn’t tell; in the picture her eyes were closed, mouth open in mid-note.
On top of the upright piano in the living room there were framed pictures of Grandmama, heavyset even as a child. First she sang on Sunday, then she sang in bars, and finally she performed in auditoriums and theaters. She could sing anything, but she was known for gospel. “They kept telling me to go on a diet,” she scoffed, “but I daren’t do it. Look at lady opera singers. They blow your hair straight back and break a drinking glass when they do it. Those girls got balloons, and need ’em, to make sounds like they do.”
Drifting off to sleep, Monk heard the trill of night callers. From the levee came a chorus of frogs.
Grandmama was in the kitchen humming, Amazing grace, how sweet the sound …
As always, Monk had put his share of today’s money in a tightly capped Mason jar, counting all of it again every time he added to the total. He had four hundred and eleven dollars so far.
Grandmama encouraged his savings. “That’ll come handy someday when you go to college,” she said. “Learning to hold money is one of the best lessons you can learn.”
But Monk wasn’t planning for college. He saved for a day when he could go in search of his father.
Grandmama said he was probably dead.
But Quinton disagreed. “Every jazzman in America would know if he died,” Quinton said. “Oh, no. Tooth DeCay is alive.”