John Beasley channels the ‘courage’ of Thelonious Monk

John Beasley has a very big musical mind.

The Grammy- and Emmy-nominated pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader has worked with Freddie Hubbard, Miles Davis, Steely Dan and Dianne Reeves, composed extensively for film and television, and has served as musical director for Herbie Hancock on International Jazz Day. Through it all, Beasley is creating some of the most dynamic and innovative music heard today.

Beasley’s 15-piece MONK’estra has shown the vibrancy and relevance of Thelonious Monk’s music in the 21st century. The big band’s first two albums earned Grammy nominations.

Their latest record finds the same incredible group playing the music of John Beasley himself, along with some Ellington, Bird and Monk tunes thrown in there for good measure. MONK’estra Plays John Beasley brings Beasley’s brilliance to life with the band’s bold, courageous and experimental spirit.

On this latest album, Beasley also brought several of his peers and mentors into the fold, including bassist John Patitucci and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, his one-time bandmates; organ great Joey DeFrancesco, whose footsteps Beasley followed into the Miles Davis band in 1989; and legendary flautist Hubert Laws, who hired Beasley and Patitucci to play Carnegie Hall when they were just 20 years old.

Beasley joined us over the phone to talk about the new album, and how the fearlessness of Thelonious Monk drives his creativity.

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Congratulations on the record. It’s a great accomplishment. How are you feeling about it at this point? 

I’m feeling good about it. I’m not really a John Beasley fan, in a way. I say that only because when you’re in the middle of a record, everything is magnified to the nth degree. You’re hearing every little flaw and you’re trying to fix things and change things. It’s funny how after a period of time between the mixing and the manufacturing and the release, music has a way of marinating. So now it’s like, “Oh, I can listen to this! This is okay!”

You just needed a little distance from it.

I’ve been listening a little bit to it, and yeah, I hope people will enjoy it.

I know you grew up in a house that was filled with music. Both your parents were musicians at a high level, and you played a number of instruments. In that environment, does a song on the radio still hit you in the same way as it might for someone who isn’t so invested in music at that age? 

I would say that I was lucky to be exposed to a different type of music than my friends down the street. Maybe my friends were listening to Sammy Davis Jr., and my parents were listening to Stravinsky and Bird and Art Blakey. To tell the truth, I haven’t listened to music much lately, because I’ve been making music. When you make music, you don’t listen as much. I decided to put the headphones on last night, turn the lights off, get in bed early and just listen to music. There were a couple things that did that for me and got my juices going. I still get excited, for sure.

It’s interesting that you say you don’t listen to music while you’re creating it. I’m guessing that’s because compositionally, so much of the process is in your head already. Is that where most of the work gets done? You can’t necessarily put on a record, because you’re already filled up with ideas?

It could be. It’s sort of an all-day thing for me. In the last 10 years, I’ve really been trying to focus on listening to the music that’s in my heart and my head — inside my body. We all have voices that we hear, past conversations, and you know, you have music in your head. We all have that. Even if I have a Katy Perry song going over and over in my head, eventually if you start paying attention to it, it’ll morph into your version of that Katy Perry song. That goes for everybody, I think. You have to make time to listen to your own voice.

Is that something that you’ve had with you for your whole life, or is that something that comes with the confidence of doing what you do over a number of years? That instinct to keep listening and know it’ll become something that’s more personal. 

I’ve come in and out of it. When I was a young kid, I sang all the time. Most kids do. Humming, singing, beat-boxing. You get into pedagogy, and you get out of that. Inevitably when I’d be alone or have quiet time, that would always come back. It wasn’t until I did this record called 3 Brave Souls with Darryl Jones and Ndugu Chancler [in 2012], and I decided to start humming and beat-boxing into my phone. I started transcribing that, and those became the songs on that record. I’ve done it ever since.

Have you ever been surprised by composing something, putting it on the page, and then once the band gets it, it’s different than the way you heard it in your heard?

Of course, and I’ve learned that part of being a jazz musician is playing together and being open to change in the moment. I actually embrace it when somebody comes up with a new idea — a phrase, a groove, maybe a new tempo — because that’s part of being a jazz band. You’ve got written music, you take it to the cats, and they personalize it and bring it to life. If you’re in the way of that process, then you are not being collaborative and not being a jazz musician. You might as well just keep it in your computer and listen back like that. I embrace the collaborative nature of our band, and everyone knows it.

It must feel great for those band members to know that they have a voice, and that they’re being recognized for what they’re bringing to the table.

It could be the reason why we don’t have a high turnover rate.

You say that the name MONK’estra is not only about the music of Thelonious Monk, but also about adopting the fearlessness that he brought to music.

It’s a way of expressing the attitude of the band. And then I had these Monk tunes, and Mack Avenue Records wanted the first record to be Monk tunes, and that made total sense. And then, unbeknownst to us when we formed the band, we didn’t even know that Monk’s 100th birthday was right around the corner. So, the second volume was released in September of 2017, when Monk turned 100. There’s been synchronicity and luck, and now we’re back to where we started, as a way to play everybody’s music in the spirit of Monk’s courage, if you will.

You brought in some special guests for the new record, people with whom you have a musical connection. Can you talk about their contributions?

It’s a full-circle thing. I met John Patitucci when we were both about 20 and we both got hired to play Carnegie Hall with Hubert Laws. It was our first gig in New York for both of us. So, we started at Carnegie Hall and it’s been downhill ever since. Hubert plays on the record. He took a chance and hired these young dudes. We were just playing people’s houses and doing little gigs around town, so that was cool. I met Vinnie Colaiuta even before I met John. We were in a band, and Larry Klein was the bass player. And then I actually followed Joey D in Miles’s band in 1989. Here’s this 17-year-old kid playing like Oscar Peterson on the synth. I learned all of Miles’s music by listening to Joey play, and we’ve been friends ever since. I met Ralph Moore when we played with Freddie Hubbard in the late ’80s, and he plays on Come Sunday, the Duke Ellington tune.

Was there something important about putting Come Sunday at the end of the record, and ending on sort of a spritual note? Was that by design?

It’s less spiritual and more political. We recorded MONK’estra Plays John Beasley last summer. I had re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, and I was reminded of the church scene with the African-American community coming together, singing, being joyous and having hope, being encouraged to go through the next week of hell that they would have to go through. In my mind, I was scoring that movie by using the hopefulness and the gospelness of Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday. What I tried to do is mix film score-ish and gospel music. In the middle, it goes through this Coltrane thing, like what he was doing in the later period of Holy Ghost on his spiritual journey. So, that’s the story of Come Sunday. 

I’ve talked to a lot of musicians who sure miss playing and sharing a room with other musicians. What’s been your experience over the last few months?

I was pretty busy with commissions and other writing stuff until July, and then I was going to be in Europe with John Patitucci and Vinnie Colaiuta doing a reunion tour. And of course, that got cancelled. I’ve had to self-motivate, and it’s been a little tough sometimes because I don’t think it’s been since I was maybe in fourth grade that I’ve gone this long without playing with other musicians. There’s a big void. It’s another type of nonverbal communication, whether you’re seven years old or 97 years old. It’s a muscle you lose. You can play with a metronome or a drum machine, but you always notice it when you haven’t played for a while with other people, because there’s a listening muscle that goes.

It’s nourishing. It’s good for the soul.

For sure. I’ve done some live-streaming, and that’s taken a bit to get used to as well, because there’s no energy from the audience. You know they’re there, but you can’t see them, and in a way you can’t feel them. At first, after I’d get through doing these things, playing solo piano, I would feel sort of empty and not know why. Even the worst gig, you feel a sense of euphoria and energy and joy. That was missing. Maybe that’s just something you get used to, but it was definitely there.

Are you hopeful? How are you feeling?

I am hopeful in that in the flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919, it ushered in the Roaring Twenties, which was the Jazz Age. People partying, going to see live music. I’m hopeful that that will be the case this time. Recently, I’ve been helping to make telephone calls to change our situation here in the United States. We’re in a dangerous situation here. It can get you really down. It affects the whole world, what this guy’s done to the environment and world diplomacy. It’s dangerous. I was really down after their convention last week, and it was right around the release of my record, and it was so crazy. So Monday I got up and started phone banking. It did make me feel better. I missed the Vietnam draft, so I was never asked to do any kind of public service — for my generation onward, actually. This is the least I can do to try to right the ship.

It must feel like a long time away from when you were involved in International Jazz Day at the White House when President Barack Obama was there.

That’s for sure. I have the picture in my studio of the whole cast with Obama and Michelle. I do look at that and go, “Well, it wasn’t that long ago.” It’s sort of a tale of how fast things can go south, for anybody in any country and any society.