When Lapham Played Beethoven for Monk

Thanks to a surprise purchase by my wife, I've been enjoying the new issue of Lapham's Quarterly, which takes music as its cover-to-cover subject. (How that theme was still open to them after several years of publishing is surprising.) 

I've enjoyed reading Lapham for years, but hadn't known that he'd studied piano as a youth, or that he'd spent time in New York City as a young writer waiting (and waiting and waiting) to write about Thelonious Monk. After several months of sharing late-night space in the Five Spot, this happened:

At four AM on a Thursday in late March [1965], the Five Spot’s waiters stacking chairs on tables, Monk stood up from the piano, snapped his fingers, thrust his palm in my direction. “Time to play, man,” he said, “time to hear what you know.” Out front in the back of a Rolls-Royce, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter was come to carry Monk home. She did so many mornings, but I never had been around at four AM to see Monk nod to the chauffeur holding open the door. A beautiful woman of uncertain age, wrapped in fur and wearing pearls, the baroness smiled, pointed me toward the seat in front. I can’t now remember if she spoke more than four words in my direction, either in the car or after we arrived at Monk’s apartment on West Sixty-Third Street at Eleventh Avenue.

Monk didn’t mess with preliminaries. Not bothering to remove his hat (that evening a fine English bowler), he pointed to the piano, opened and closed the wooden door of the bathroom directly behind it, seated himself on the toilet to listen to whatever came next. Nellie and the baroness sat upright and attentive on the small blue sofa they shared with a rag doll and a rocking horse. I played Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 27 in two movements (the first in E minor, the second in E major), run time fourteen minutes if taken at the indicated tempos. I don’t say I played it as well as Lipsky might have played it, but I’d been practicing it six days out of seven for two months, and to the best of my knowledge and recollection, I didn’t miss many notes, never once felt ill at ease or afraid. Monk stepped out of the bathroom, looked me square in the face, said simply, straight, no chaser, “I heard you.”

By then I knew enough to dig what he was saying. It wasn’t the personality of Lewis H. Lapham he heard playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 27. He didn’t care who or what I was, clubfooted and white or blue-eyed and black. It wasn’t me or my interpretation, it was the music itself, off the charts beyond good and evil that somehow and if only for the time being I’d managed to reach.