When Charlie Rouse talked about Monk, you could hear both pain and admiration in his voice.”People don’t realize what a genius that man was, how strong, how dominant,” he’d say. “How dominant.”
With Rouse, it always came back to Monk. Only eleven years with him, but they were the touchstone, the experience his life led up to and the reference point for all that came after that.
The last gig he ever played was a tribute to Monk.
“Thelonious was the daddy of it all,” Rouse would say . always called him Thelonious.
“Thelonious, man,” he’d say with a shake of his large gray head You could see the memory of those lessons cross his face . its strong jaw that stuck out to support the mouthpiece of his tenor sax . cheekbones that said Cherokee on his mother’s side. Large, solid hands but Rouse made himself small before the stare of Monk.
“Thelonious, man . You wouldn’t understand unless you were around him. He was like a teacher as a friend.”
All the teachers he’d had all telling him Find your own identity, all leading up to Thelonious, who forced him.
His jaw softens al those lessons distant now in the glow of forgiveness.
“You see, the era I came up in, the circle of musicians were always learning and feeding off each other. It was like a big school . you’d go to each other’s houses and play, or to clubs and jam, all night long.”
But it was a school of competitive, hungry men.
“They weren’t trained teachers . So they did it the only way they knew — if you played something wrong, they’d stop and say, ‘Well, man, why don’t you go and practice?'” Rouse could chuckle, after so many years. “‘Man, you’re not listening,’ they’d say . ‘Why can’t you find those notes?’ Thelonious would ask. ‘They’re on your horn.'”
“They weren’t doing it to hurt you,” he’d add, even though it did.
“You had to break down your ego and try to learn.”
So Rouse humbled himself, and the character of the art form he served eventually became his own.
Ever since he was 18 and on tour with Billy Eckstine’s band, running through method books double time with Gillespie and Parker, Rouse was trying to learn. He’d stay a while in New York then retreat to his mother’s home in Washington, licking his wounds before he returned again.
Rouse humbled himself to the music that gave his playing a kind of nobility — and nobility is difficult to earn.
Monk’s tunes are difficult — bone dry, angular, demanding at once the romantic and astringent. Melodies uncoil from the middle of a beat, then burst and fall like petals, unexpected but full of grace.
“Some of his music seemed impossible, man,” Rouse said. “‘You’d look at those tunes on paper and say, “What are you talking about?’ And Thelonious would say, ‘It’s on your horn, ain’t it?'”
Like a calculus lesson. But exhilarating, once you got it, like flying over emptiness.
“Playing with Thelonious, you can’t wait and let him guide you, you got to be there yourself. You can’t lean on anybody when you play with Thelonious.”
Sometimes, Monk would just lay out, leaving Rouse up there to solo with only bass and drums. At other times, he wold push, prod and challenge him.
Rouse had played with the most important jazz musicians of his day … For nearly 30 years he was at the center of the world . during the ’60s, Monk was at the top, Rouse with him, touring Europe, the best hotels, five-star restaurants . His saxophone became the sound of Monk.
And then he stepped aside.
Monk demanded the confidence that Rouse did not fully achieve until the last years of his life . Insecure, full of self-doubt, uncomfortable, he always sought out strong men to guide him Monk was the strongest.
” Thelonious, man,” Rouse would say, and shake his big head.
See, Monk was a celebrity. He was only four years older, but in Rouse’s recollections, he appears like a father. Even during years of poverty . he was a giant. Dressed in a suit and cool hat, he’d dance on Harlem street corners until a crowd followed to hear him play in his apartment , where the baby grand took up the living room and some of the kitchen.
Rouse idolized him.
On stage, Rouse stood in the curve of Monk’s piano . The cat in the hat, they called him, and he’d get up from the bench and shuffle, twirl and spin . Rouse always had to explain, always had to answer questions, retrieve Monk from situations, suffer days when he would speak to no one .
What finally separated them, though, was when the Monk he knew really did disappear.
Monk’s son believes that the pianist had a stroke no one knew about, though he lived another 14 years. Whatever happened, Monk was no longer the same man after 1968, no longer the perfectionist he had taught Rouse to be. The music suffered and the hurt in Rouse grew as he looked into the eyes of his old friend and saw no one.
It took him years to recover.
He’d always felt intimidated next to the giants who employed him his urge to withdraw at war always with the desire to share his gift. He wanted to please, to be a nice guy …. it was hard to find himself.
“After I left Thelonious, I didn’t want to play with anyone, he said. I needed to find my own way.”
He finally did. But he had to move all the way to Oregon first.
Fifteen years after he left Monk, Rouse was wearing a black cowboy hat and riding shotgun along the back roads of America with his new wife Mary Ellen at the wheel of their ’76 Pontiac wagon. Finally on his own.
At first he’d been afraid.
“I can’t go out there,” he said. “I can’t go out there.”
Rouse had never owned a car, feared he couldn’t get work outside New York, feared living without the comfort of drugs, feared playing with musicians he didn’t know, feared America really .
And all his women were domineering, even his mother and even Mary Ellen, who convinced him finally with her toothy optimism and madcap persistence convinced to leave New York and move to Oregon, to a double-wide with a view on 6.5 acres outside Canby.
It was the first time he had ever known quiet.
He started growing green beans and tomatoes set up a bird feeder . Once, when he was sitting on a boulder in a mountain stream playing the flute, a monarch butterfly danced around his head, landed on his hair, flew up and landed again, its black-and-orange wings beating to his breath. He thought it was a good omen.
“I wish I’d know about this 30 years ago,” he said, but he couldn’t have done it then. It took doctor’s orders to stop smoking and Mary Ellen repeatedly flushing his stash before he could travel America without paranoia — travel America with Mary Ellen booking tours for Charlie with pick-up rhythm sections all around the West.
And then they drove — one of the big old cars they’d accumulated — to Salt Lake, Santa Fe, Las Cruces, El Paso, and Corpus Cristi — Charlie with his cowboy hat over his face as he slept in the back. In Burns, he bought three pairs of boots.
His New York bandmates didn’t like his hat, felt he’d abandoned them. Charlie didn’t care . On his own, he had other plans.
With Mary Ellen’s help, he’d found the Catholic Church . slipped in to pray to St. Jude, patron saint of the hopeless. Even then he must have known.
Soon he got the diagnosis. A tumor in Charlie’s lung . he had a year to live.
He kept on though, with a fullness that made him sound smoother, more dreamy ,as if he were playing just for himself.
When he finally died in a Seattle hospital, Mary Ellen got herself listed as funeral director on the dearth certificate loaded his body into the green Pontiac then drove down the freeway, Charlie’s black cowboy hat covering his face, all the way to Lafayette, to the Trappist abby where Charlie had come to know the monks and she could give his body over to be blessed.
They buried Charlie at St. Mary’s Church in Mt. Angel, beside a field of hops, 3,000 miles from New York, in the rolling foothills where he’d finally learned to blow his own yearning into the melodies of Monk.
“I ended up getting my own sound,” he said. The flowers on his chest in the casket looked like the wings of butterflies, stilled now without his breath.