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NICA, NELLIE AND MONK: A JAZZ TRIANGLE (cont.

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PART TWO: NELLIE SMITH MONK
Nica and Monks unconventional relationship appeared to be sanctioned by Monks wife,
Nellie Smith Monk, who is often relegated to footnotes in biographies about Monk.
Nellie, however, was the lifelong cornerstone of Monks existence and career.
If Nica adopted jazz at some point in her life, Nellie Smith Monk WAS jazz. She seemed
to improvise her entire life throughout difficult circumstances. Nellie Smith was born in
St. Petersburg, Florida in 1921 but moved to Manhattan at age 6 where she met Monk
when she was just 14 and he 17 years old. Nellie understood Monks complexities and
because of Monks strong attachment to his mother, agreed to reside with Monk at his
mothers home from the beginning of their marriage in 1947 until 1972 when the family
moved into Nicas Weehawken, New Jersey estate.*
Nellie understood Monks weaknesses, one of them being his lack of organizational
acumen, and became his de facto business manager, collecting money, paying the band,
and handling other touring logistics. She supported Monk when money became tight by
working as a factory seamstress and made not only his clothes, but the clothes of his
bandmates. Nellie often stepped in to smooth out her husbands uncomfortable pauses
and behaviors when he gave interviews or acted erratically at gigs. When she became ill
and underwent surgery for a thyroid disorder in 1957, her husband wrote Crespuscule
with Nellie for her. (Nica was also memorialized in song, both directly and indirectly by
Monk and other artists.)
By personal accounts, Nellie was unfazed by Monks close relationship with Nica and
even seemed to appreciate their connection. Monk and Nellie had two children, Barbara,
who died in 1984, and Thelonious T.S. Monk, Jr., a well-known musician.
I see no record as to the extent of Nellies formal education, but it is clear to me that this
woman was a quick study: intelligent and intuitive. Even back then, I suppose that a
black woman might have been able to use those talents in a variety of ways. Nellie made
a commitment to utilize them for the furtherance of Thelonious Monk.
St. Petersburg Times columnist Bill Maxwell, one of a small group of black journalists
who interviewed Nellie in 1987, put it bluntly when he wrote in part:
All who follow the lives of jazz musicians have tales of self-absorbed artists who live in
their imaginations, who cannot tie their own shoes, let alone pay their bills and otherwise
handle their daily affairs....

Even in jazz musician terms, Thelonious was a living, breathing mess. [Nellie] literally
had to lead Thelonious through airport terminals and hotel lobbies. He was the epitome of
social dysfunctionality....
Those who knew the couple said theirs was a genuine love affair grounded in mutual
respect and a shared history of hardship. She always will be the embodiment of true black
love, the kind that I see in my own mother. Nellie Monk was selfless, strong and wise.
Clearly, she saw her life with Thelonious as a life-long relationship, which required her to
look down the road and see the future benefits of the union -- even when he saw only
notes on a music sheet.
CONCLUSION
Nellie was reportedly the last person with Monk before he passed away on February 17,
1982. Film footage shows Nellie and Nica sitting side by side at his funeral. Nica died
on November 30, 1988. Nellie passed away nearly fourteen years later, on June 25, 2002.
Nellie and Nica. Two remarkable women from two completely different backgrounds.
Some continue to speculate as to the nature of that relationship between Nica and Monk,
was it more than music? I dont evaluate it that way. Certainly, Nica loved Monk. But
Nica also loved jazz and jazz was at the heart of her relationships with all of her musician
friends. Nellie was smart enough to understand that. Likewise, Nica understood how
very important Nellie was to Monk. So I never think love triangle when I think of Nica,
Nellie and Monk.
I prefer to think of it as a jazz triangle. Think improvisation.
Sources:
www.en.wikipedia.org
www.fr.wikipedia.org
www.thejazzbaroness.co.uk
www.musique.fluctuat.net/charlie-parker
Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser. Dir. Charlotte Zwerin. Exec. Prod. Clint
Eastwood. 1988. DVD Warner Home Video, 2001.
Bill Maxwell, Nellie Monk held Thelonious Together, St. Petersburg Times. July 10,
2002
Steve Voce, Nellie Monk - Wife and interpreter of Thelonious, The London Independent.
June 28, 2002
*Note: One resource used in researching this blog, www.thejazzbaroness.co.uk,
asserts that Nellie did not move in along with Monk and only came by to cook and care
for him several times a week. However, the overwhelming majority of sources I checked
stated without equivocation that both Nellie and Monk moved into Nicas home in 1972,

the year Monk became ill. I am somewhat surprised that there would be any discrepancy
or dispute about this part of their lives, particularly since there is a living son who could
certainly recall what the living arrangements were during this time period.