The Short Life of Barbara Monk by Ran Blake
Sometimes friends and fans ask me about the background of specific compositions of mine so I felt I would post it here so it would be more accessible.
The Short Life of Barbara Monk brings back memories of a few months that I spent assisting the Monk family after an electrical fire destroyed their home in the early 1960s. Fortunately no one was injured, but all of the Monk’s family possessions were ash, including Thelonious’ precious Klein upright piano, record collection, family photos, and original manuscripts.
This tragic snowy day would be the first time I would meet my hero, Thelonious. Meeting him, Nellie, Toot, and Boo Boo huddled on a fire damaged soaking wet bed in a decimated ash filled apartment… it was a surreal experience for me. Recalling it now still breaks my heart- their loss and suffering. After realizing the extent of the damage (unnoticeable from outside because of the snowfall), I rushed to call Baroness Nica Pannonica de Koenigswarter Rothschild to ask for her assistance. She helped me get in touch with Monk’s family friends and in the meantime I arranged food, clothing, and other supplies for them.
As odd as it is, my friendship with the Monk family grew out of this tragic event in their lives. I took Toot (T.S.) and Boo Boo (Barbara) out for meals, walks, and watched over them while Thelonious and Nellie were pulling their life back together.
Years would drift by and I would occasionally drop by, always welcome to one of Nellie’s renowned fruit bars. Occasionally, Monk would ask me to make him al dente rice that was half way between brown and white with garlic, onion, fennel, and a special spice he had that I haven’t been able to find since.
I recently saw Toot (T.S.) at Scullers Jazz Club and was surprised he remembered those early years in such detail, telling the audience, “My father wouldn’t just let anyone babysit us. This guy over here [pointing at Ran], Ran Blake, was one of two he trusted with his kids. Great to see you, Ran. Much love.”
Aside from the fire, more so tragic events would devastate the Monk family years later. Barbara and T.S.’s fiancée, Yvonne Fletcher, both died young of breast cancer just a few months apart, and just over a year after Thelonious’ death. In just over a year, three deaths.
This composition, The Short Life of Barbara Monk, imagines Boo Boo skating in Central Park as I knew her as a child and then transitions into her emotions when receiving the terrible diagnosis and becoming ill- the very month that Thelonious Monk Blvd. was established at West 63rd Street in Manhattan in her father’s honor.
- You can read more about this part of Thelonious’ life and more in Robin D.G. Kelley’s wonderful book, “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original.”