THE FAMOUS DOOR FEBRUARY 4, 2010
Since I've taken the name for this new feature from a storied old jazz club, I thought I should start the series with a video that features a person who not only played in the place but who also named one of his signature pieces "52nd Street Theme"--Thelonious Monk. This clip of a different tune of his, "Blue Monk," is an excerpt from a 1950s TV series called "The Seven Lively Arts," which devoted an episode to jazz. Broadcast on a Sunday afternoon, the show was quasi-educational programming, as we can tell from the presence of the lifeless WASPY host, New York Herald Tribune critic John Crosby. Assuring viewers of his authority on jazz and superiority to its practitioners, he appears on screen positioned above the musicians on prop stairs, and he literally descends to grace the black people with his haughty postwar white benevolence. Monk, who hadn't shown up for the rehearsal, is in wonderful form, costumed with kooky splendor in a riding cap and bamboo shades. He plays with fearless, riveting originality, and the producers of the show enforce the prevailing conception of Monk as a freakish spectacle by positioning Count Basie at the nape of his grand piano, to ogle. Basie accommodates, snickering at Monk's work and darting his eyes around in "get this guy" incredulity. (The other onlookers in the reaction shots include tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and singer Jimmy Rushing, who performed in other segments of the show.) Monk resented how Basie was used to mock him, and he threatened after the show to appear at Basie’s next concert, sit on the other side of his piano, and make him look like the fool that Monk allowed himself to appear to be only on his own terms.