"It was easy," said Monk, who will bring the T.S. Monk Sextet, a popular jazz ensemble, to the Weehawken waterfront Wednesday night as the latest in the Hudson Riverfront Performing Arts Center's "Summer Concerts on the Hudson" series.
"My father told me early on, when I was like 7 or 8, that I didn't have to become a musician like him," T.S. Monk said of his legendary dad, who spent the last decade of his life living in Weehawken before his death in 1982. "He said that I could just run around in life as Thelonious Monk, Jr. There was never any pressure to get into music. It wasn't until I was around 15 that I took up the drums. At that time, my Dad said, 'Hey, you're late.' That's when it all began."
But there was a major difference between the legendary performer and the rising star. Thelonious Monk played the piano with a style and grace rarely seen in jazz circles.
T.S. Monk took to the drums and immediately sought a career in the more popular world of rhythm & blues.
"A life in jazz simply wasn't acceptable for someone like me back then in the 1970s," T.S. Monk explained. "It was more of a vintage art form that was dying. Record sales were down. Jazz clubs were closing. There was no work to be had, and jazz had no redemptive value. It was natural for me to grow into R&B, so that took a lot of the pressure off of being Thelonious' son. I was T.S. Monk. No pressure there. I didn't have to live up to my father's legacy. I played the drums. It was like comparing apples and oranges."
A time to grieve
While the son did manage to play drums for his father's famed trio for five years - one of his biggest thrills - he also formed his own R&B ensemble and performed and recorded R&B music with a group called Natural Essence, then forming another group with his sister, Barbara, where the pair combined on hits such as "House of Music" and "More of the Good Life."
The T.S. Monk Band remained together until 1983, when T.S.' girlfriend died of breast cancer. A year later, his sister Barbara succumbed to the same disease. He lost his father, girlfriend and sister all in a three-year span.
"It was like getting hit with a freight train," T.S. Monk recalled. "I just shut down. I disappeared. I got out of the music business for a while."
However, Monk did find the time to honor his father by forming the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. As the chairman of the Institute, Monk created programs in Boston, Los Angeles, Orlando and New York, sponsoring music education and after-school athletic programs for youngsters.
But in 1992, T.S. felt the need to perform jazz once again.
"When I got back into jazz, I really didn't know how I was going to be received," Monk said. "I knew the microscope would be reserved for me, because I was Thelonious Monk's son. I knew that I had to be a lot better than just average. I took the torch that was handed to me. It was more than doing a tribute to my father. I had to be qualified enough and skilled enough."
'Monk on Monk'
By the time that T.S. Monk recorded the award-winning CD, "Monk on Monk," playing his father's memorable compositions, he knew that he had made it.
"I exorcised the shadow of my father and actually replaced it with my own identity," Monk said. "I guess I became a chip off the old block, so to speak."
The T.S. Monk Sextet has become one of the foremost bands in the jazz industry. They just recently performed to standing ovations at the Newport Jazz Festival, where Monk played many cuts from his latest CD release, "Crosstalk," which added vocals for the first time in 15 years.
There's another side to this free concert on the Weehawken waterfront. You see, Monk spent a lot of time in Weehawken with his father, who called the township home from 1971 through his death in February, 1982.
"Weehawken became like a second home to me," T.S. Monk said. "My father liked going to Weehawken and hanging out, because it was a good place for the other musicians to come and jam. It became a secluded place for jazz musicians to come. All the greats were there, like John Coltrane, Dizzy (Gillespie) and Miles (Davis). We spent 10 Christmases in Weehawken. After he retired from performing (in 1975), my father and mother lived full-time in Weehawken. They kept their apartment in New York, but they also kept their place on Kingswood Avenue. At that time, there were only a few houses on the block. I have very fond memories of Weehawken."
So that means this concert will be like a homecoming for the 55-year-old Monk, who currently calls South Orange home.
"The gig in Weehawken is definitely like coming home," Monk said. "I remember looking out the window of our home and seeing the Manhattan skyline change. This concert will have a sentimental meaning for me. I'm delighted to be coming home to this little niche, a place with very special history for us. It's a great feeling to be playing in a place that is embracing jazz as a cultural institution."
The T.S. Monk Sextet will perform Wednesday night as part of the Hudson Riverfront Performing Arts Center's Summer Concerts on the Hudson series at Lincoln Harbor Park on Harbor Boulevard on the Weehawken waterfront. The free concert is scheduled for 7 p.m. and concertgoers are urged to bring lawn chairs or blankets. For further information, including directions and rain dates, please visit www.hrpac.org or call the HRPAC's hotline at (201) 716-4540.