I sat down for a conversation with visual artist and world- renowned Jazz Trombonist Dick Griffin to discuss the inspiration behind his Underground Monk painting of legendary American jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Sphere Monk.
Griffin first met Thelonious Monk while playing at the Village Vanguard in NYC with Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Little did Griffin know prior to graduating with a Masters in Music Education from Indiana University in August of 1967 that he would be sharing a stage and a special connection with a music legend.
Griffin explains this as being the same time Monk was recording his Underground album with his band, which included Charlie Rouse on tenor sax, Larry Gales on bass and Ben Riley on drums.
During this 6-week Vanguard performance, Griffin would spend a lot of time in the kitchen on breaks since he didn’t smoke or drink. He soon discovered that Monk would also be in the kitchen pacing back and forth, while practicing his dance moves prior to going back on stage. On one of the performance nights, Griffin was playing his signature multi-phonics, which he explains is playing 2 notes at the same time on his trombone. Monk heard him and stopped in his tracks from his characteristic pacing, and thus was the beginning of what Griffin describes as a number of meaningful conversations between the young Griffin and the artist that he would share a special connection.
Griffin recalls a specific exchange when Monk told him that making a record was like writing a book, and every song was like a chapter. And like great books, Monk explained, great records would live on longer than we would.
Monk was born around the same time as Griffin’s father, and Griffin remembers looking up to Monk as a kind of father figure, since his own father was killed in a car accident when Griffin was only 7 years old.
Griffin barely remembers hearing people in the band call him “Thelonious”. Instead, they would call out to him, “Hey T”. During his Village Vanguard performances, Griffin witnessed Monk going back and forth from the kitchen to the stage and come back on stage at the exact time of his piano parts. Griffin was always amazed at how Monk could get back to the bandstand as if he had been sitting at the piano the entire time, and then come in on the right beat every time.
Griffin describes Monk as a very intelligent, bright and athletic man who was also very deep and spiritual. He played the piano with his fingers straight instead of curved.
Griffin loved being around Monk, and was grateful for the 6 nights per week performances that lasted 6-weeks at the Vanguard.
When asked about his inspiration behind his 3 feet x 4 feet painting entitled Underground Monk, Griffin says he was inspired to paint this piece in 2017 during Monk’s 100th anniversary. He was inspired by the same album that Monk was recording when Griffin met him, and this was his way of paying homage to his friend.
Griffin’s Underground Monk painting includes actual piano keys containing the letter “T” as well as the literal album cover, which Griffin says you need to stand closer to the painting to see it. This is the same cover whose image depicts Monk as a French Resistance fighter from World War II, and which won the Grammy Award for Best Album Cover in 1968.
Griffin’s tribute painting has been exhibited at several galleries in NYC, and was included in the Centennial Celebration of Thelonious Sphere Monk: Reflections of Monk Exhibit at Kenkeleba Gallery in New York.
Griffin has also collaborated with RiseAD on a collection of sunglasses inspired by his paintings, including a pair with the same name, Underground Monk.
By Theresa Majeed