The First Time She Heard Monk

Cover art for Lorraine Gordon's memoirLorraine Gordon, 84-year-old doyen of the Village Vanguard, published her memoirs earlier this year. Alive at the Village Vanguard tells the following story about the first time Lorraine heard Thelonious Monk in a cramped uptown apartment in the 1940s. She was married then to Alfred Lion, founder of Blue Note Records and an early promoter of Monk’s music. Lorraine later married Max Gordon, owner of the Vanguard. When he died in 1989, she took over day-to-day management of the club, one of the most celebrated venues in jazz. More than 100 albums carry “Live at the Village Vanguard” in their titles. NPR did a fine tribute to Lorraine Gordon when her memoir was published, including MP3 downloads of some of the jazz classics recorded there..

Monk’s room was right off the kitchen. It was a room out of Vincent Van Gogh somehow – you know, ascetic – a bed, a cot, really, against the wall, a window and an upright piano. That was it.

We all sat down on Monk’s narrow bed — our legs straight out in front of us, like children. I looked up for a moment and saw a picture of Billie Holiday taped to the ceiling. The door closed. And Monk, his back to us, began to play.

He had enormous hands. Those hands almost stammered, it seemed to me, right above the keys. ‘Where are they going to come down?’ I kept wondering. It was just riveting to watch.

There were a lot of modern musicians I didn’t understand — they were fast and terrific but not comprehensible to me, necessarily. Thelonious Monk I understood. Always. Monk was a revelation. From our very first encounter he was right in my groove.

He was always working on something new. That day we heard him composing what would turn out to be “Ruby, My Dear,” one of Monk’s most admired signature compositions. He didn’t even have a title for it yet. I just loved the melody, so much so that I can remember thinking: ‘Boy, I wish he’d name it after me – call it “Sweet Lorraine” or something.’ Eventually, in the course of a later visit, Thelonious did tell me that he had titled this piece “Ruby, My Dear,” and I said to him, “Oh, who’s Ruby?” “No-one,” Thelonious answered. “I just like the name.”

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