Crystal Joy Albert’s memories of Thelonious Monk as compiled from an interview conducted by F. Norman Vickers:
I was introduced to Monk by pianist John Malachi, a friend I met during my Miami days singing and playing at the Lord Calvert Hotel. He was musical director and accompanist for Al Hibbler, one of the many fine acts featured that season at the hotel.
John always traveled with his Wurlitzer electric piano. He set it up in the bar section of the hotel for jam sessions after shows. Needless to say, this was a big attraction. Every night was an adventure in great jazz! I got to meet and sometimes even play with the best musicians in town, such as Cannonball, Toots, Kenny Clarke … very exciting times!
Fast forward to several months later. I was back in New York City, and Al Hibbler came into the Apollo Theater for an engagement. John invited me to a day of shows, three or four plus dress rehearsal! I watched dress rehearsal in the audience and got a real feel for the show. Then I hung out backstage and enjoyed the comaraderie of the visiting celebrities and the guys in the band. Al Hibbler had a wicked sense of humor and kept everyone in stitches. I watched all the shows with the same excitement every time.
As if that wasn’t enough music for everyone, there was word of a session in a downtown loft with a great piano. Every pianist of note was rumored to be showing up! John took me.
It lived up to all my expectations. There were so many great pianists—Wynton, Red, John, of course, and Monk. The greats played first and it stretched on until the sun started to peek through. We newbies were dying to play before everyone left! I finally got my chance and played solo—the bass and drummer were long gone—just one tune before someone else wanted a chance. Monk was still there!
John introduced me and told Monk that I was a promising singer and composer. Monk indicated he would like to hear some of my tunes and to my delight invited me to come by his pad the next day and hang out and play for him. Naturally I accepted the invitation.
Nellie, his wife, greeted me warmly, said I was expected and told me to make myself at home. Monk was at the piano trying out a tune he had just written. I sat back and soaked it all in, mesmerized. Just being there was more than I ever expected.
Shortly after I arrived, Nellie asked me to listen out for the children, Barbara and Thelonious (toddlers), who were napping, while she ran an errand. I was glad to do it. Monk played the same tune with variations about 10 times—fascinating! Then he got up and motioned for me to play. I noodled around, got the feel of his piano (an upright) and then launched into my latest composition, a nice medium tempo groove. He started dancing around the room—the groove got him! Encouraged, I went into another and another. He nodded approval, so I quit while I was ahead.
He played some more, then Nellie came home. They invited me to his recording session that evening at Riverside records. We all got into a cab and rode down to the studio.
Most of the musicians were there, all except the bass player. So while they waited for him, Monk played his new tune. It was to be part of the session. When he finished, one of the young men in the room asked in a smart-alecky way the name of the tune. After a long silence, Monk said “Crepuscule With Nellie.” There was some chuckling and someone asked what crepuscule meant, as if Monk had made it up. After another interval when everything got quiet, Monk whispered “Twilight.” Beautiful!
The bass player finally showed up. I believe that was Wilbur Ware.
Monk was working at the Five Spot on Third Avenue that weekend and Monk invited me to that!
I showed up in the middle of a great set. During the break, he invited me to sit in. I had the supreme confidence of youth and the approval of Monk so I hopped up on the band stand and called the tune! I actually led the group on a merry romp of “This Will Be My Shining Hour.” When it was over, the drummer said to the group, “She was good!” But the sax player said, “What if that’s the only song she knows.” But Monk was pleased and I was estatic! By the way, the drummer was Art Blakey and the cynic on tenor was John Coltrane!
But that’s another story …
The above story was compiled by F. Norman Vickers from an interview he recently conducted with pianist and vocalist Crystal Joy Albert, now residing in Pensacola, Florida. (Dr. Vickers’ review of the new CD set Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 by Thelonious Monk may be found in this issue.)