Usually Monk walked. He ambled across the city on feet as light as a tap-dancer. He weaved his way down block after block, whistling, humming, snapping his fingers. Monk liked to take different routes, but most of them led eventually to the Hudson River, where the large man in the strange hat would lean on the railing and watch the lights of the city dance on the black water.
Wordsworth said that many of his poems collected in the Lyrical Ballads were written to the rhythms of his long walks across the hills of the Lake District. Thelonious Monk composed some the most revolutionary music of the 20th century out on the streets of Manhattan, rambling down the sidewalks or staring out at the sluggish river. Those fresh new sounds just flowed through his head as he prowled the city: “Criss Cross,” “Coming on the Hudson,” “Brilliant Corners,” “Manhattan Moods.”
But on a steamy August night in 1951 Monk missed his evening walk. Instead he was sitting in a car outside his mother’s house with his friend Bud Powell. Monk’s mother, Miss Barbara, had cancer and he had been staying with her when Powell, the tormented genius, dropped over with a couple of his friends.
Powell was agitated, manic, talking smack. He skittered around the kitchen, bellowing a stream of invective. Monk wanted to calm Powell down. Bud hadn’t been the same since that night in Philadelphia when a racist cop split his head open with a truncheon. He was a…