When Thelonious Monk first met Dollar Brand

By 1964, Dollar Brand (later Abdullah Ibrahim) had already made 3 LP's as a bandleader. He was living in Switzerland and had just gotten a boost from Duke Ellington.

Historian Robin D.G. Kelley has written a big, fat biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, about the jazz pianist and composer. The book takes time to wade through, especially if it means stopping a few times to Google or Youtube search for and play some of the music as Kelley writes about them.  The book also has its moments (and there are many of these), like when Kelley retells the story of a memorable meeting in 1964 in Zurich, Switzerland, between Monk and South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, then still known as Dollar Brand. (He converted to Islam in the early 1970s and changed his name from Adolph Brand.)

Ibrahim had left South Africa a few years earlier, was then still at the start of his career – in terms of making a name for himself – and this was long before he would get a reputation as probably the greatest musician to come out South Africa. The meeting was even more fascinating as Brand was then praised as “South Africa’s Monk.” Here’s the story as told by Kelley. I put in the hyperlinks for those who would like to read more:

… [Monk and his wife, Nellie] were at Kongresshaus in Zurich where Monk gave another successful concert. After the show, a tall, lanky black man with a heavy accent came on stage and introduced himself as Dollar Brand–one of those unusual names Monk dug. He told Monk that he was a piano player from South Africa who had just arrived in Switzerland with his wife, singer Bea Benjamin, and his band, bassist Johnny Gertze and drummer Makaya Ntshoko. They had fled their country in the aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. The trio had a regular gig at the Cafe Africana and he invited Monk and Nellie to come hear them if they had time. He didn’t stay very long, but before he left, “[I] thanked him for the inspiration. [Monk] looked at me for a time and then said: “You’re the first piano player to tell me that.”

Inspiration might be an understatement. The 29 year-old Brand (who would soon change his name to Abdullah Ibrahim) earned the nickname “South Africa’s Monk.” A founding member of the short-lived “Jazz Epistels,” South Africa’s most influential modern jazz emsemble, Brand was introduced to Monk’s music by his bandmate, alto saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi. “Kippie would talk to me about Monk before I’d heard of any of his records. I was saying: ‘Monk? What’s this Monk thing?’ And then, man, I heard the music and I said ‘aaaaaah.! I can dig this … so this is Monk!’ Kippie would be screaming about how Monk was playing the same type of sound you could hear in so-called tribal music up in the Northern Transvaal.” Brand’s first LIP as a leader, recorded in 1960, was titled Dollar Brand Plays Sphere Jazz [later released on CD as Blues for a Hip King] and included ‘Misterioso’ and ‘Just You, Just Me’–a favorite Monk standard. [Brand’s 1963 album, produced by Duke Ellington, included one Monk composition, ‘Brilliant Corners.’] … Even his original pieces [on that album] possessed strong Monk influences. “Ubu Siko” knits together phrases from two standards Monk played: The first bar of “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and the second bar of “You Are Too Beautiful.” It shares some similarities with “Crepuscule with Nellie,” including the bass figure in the fifth measure of the melody. Whether or not Monk ever grasped the impact he had on Brand, he did discover that night in Zurich just how far his music had traveled …

Further Reading