The Day I Met Thelonious and Nica in Heaven

Nica and Thelonious
Nica and Thelonious

I was sitting in my music room the morning after the biggest snowstorm of the winter, alternately practicing my guitar and looking out at the snow piled heavy on the trees. My wife walked in with a late morning cup of coffee.

“I hate winter,” she said.

Not wanting to disappoint her, I gave my standard answer. “I love it. It’s pretty. Besides, we get to spend the morning drinking coffee and looking at the snow.”

“Some of us have to go out and run errands,” she said, sipping her coffee. “What are you working on?”

“A Thelonious Monk tune: Pannonica,” I said handing her the sheet music. “I can’t seem to get it right.”

She looked it over. She’d had early training on the piano and could read music easily. Sometimes, I felt envious.

“I’ve heard you practicing this,” she said. “You sound pretty good to me.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I can play the notes OK, but I just can’t get the feeling right.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s a love song, but I can’t seem to make it sound like one.”

“A love song?” she said looking over the music, her eyes narrowed in concentration. “It looks strange for a love song.”

“That’s Monk’s genius. He could make all those odd chord changes and dissonances sound beautiful. You see,” I went on, “it’s a song he wrote for a woman who literally saved his life. I just can’t seem to give it the feeling it deserves.”

My wife took another sip of coffee and sat down. She knew I wanted to talk.

Pannonica de Koenegswarter
Pannonica de Koenegswarter

“Her name was Pannonica de Koenigswarter,” I started, “but they called her Nica. Her father was an amateur entomologist, and he named her ‘Pannonica’ after a butterfly he had discovered. Nica was a Rothschild, and not some distant relative, but right in the family.”

“I think you’ve mentioned her.”

“Yeah. She grew up in outrageous wealth – basically she lived in a palace. She married a Baron and became baroness de Koenigswarter. But, she just couldn’t live like people wanted her to live. They fled Paris when the Nazis invaded. Her husband went back to fight in North Africa, and she went to New York, but couldn’t stand being away from the fight. She came back, drove ambulances in North Africa, and was even decorated by the Free French.”

My wife took another sip of coffee and leaned forward in her chair. She was getting interested.

“After the war, Nica went back to New York. One day, she heard a recording of ‘Round Midnight.’ It changed her life. She had to meet the man who wrote it, and tracked Monk down in Paris. After that, they were nearly inseparable.”

“What about the Baron?” my wife asked.

“Well, they divorced eventually. Nica was wealthy, of course. She moved to New York and threw herself into the Jazz scene – she became a sort of patroness. She knew all the great Jazz musicians of the day. After they kicked her out of the Bolivar Hotel because of the all-night jam sessions, she bought a house in New Jersey, and filled it up with stray cats and musicians.”

“Cats?” my wife said, looking around at Elvis, Ziggy, Elizabeth, Audrey, and the rest of our little pride lounging on the furniture.

Thelonious and cat
Thelonious and one of Nica’s Cats

“Yeah, she had around a hundred cats in her house. I’ve seen pictures of all these great musicians sitting on her couch surrounded by cats.”

My wife smiled. I knew the cat part would pull her in.

“There are these great stories about her. There was a major scandal when Charlie Parker died in her hotel suite – it was in all the papers. Then there was the time the cops stopped her and Thelonious, and found a small amount of pot in the car. She claimed it was hers, just to keep him out of jail.”

“She went to jail?”

“Only for a couple of nights. A rich white woman with lawyers – well, you know. Monk struggled with mental illness – prison would have killed him.”

“So she really did save his life.”

“Yeah. I could go on all day. There are stories of her barreling around New York in her Bentley to got musicians to gigs on time, helping them out with their bills, or giving them a place to stay when they needed it. The clubs all knew her, and she’d sit at a table by the bandstand with her fur coat draped over a chair, drinking and chain smoking from a long cigarette holder until the place closed, the Bentley parked out front the whole time.”

My wife smiled.

“There must be a dozen jazz songs written for her: Nica’s Dream, Nica’s this or that – but Pannonica is the best. “

I realized I was going on.

“How do you play a song a guy like Monk wrote for a woman like that?” I concluded.

“You’ll figure it out.”

“I hope so,” I said, putting my guitar in the stand and getting up to stretch my back. “But maybe I’ll go shovel the driveway first. You need to get out and do your errands.”

                                               

 

I’d always loved cold weather and snow, so shoveling the drive was just another excuse to spend time out in the winter. I loved the feeling of the cold air in my lungs when I got out of breath, the ice crystals ticking my face when the wind kicked up, the crunch of it under my feet. I had my ear buds in, and was listening to Tommy Flanagan’s version of ‘Pannonica’ while I pushed the shovel through the heavy, wet snow, hoping I might hear something that would help me with my own playing. I was listening and watching the snow pile up in front of the shovel as I pushed it across the driveway when I started to feel tightness in my chest. I don’t recall what happened next. I do remember I felt no fear, no pain – just a strange lightness and an inexplicable sense of contentment as I fell face-first into a snow bank by the garage.

I’m not sure how it happened, or how long it took, but the chill of soft snow on my face gave way to a warm breeze on one cheek, and a slab of concrete pressing against the other.

I sat up, and rubbed the cheek that had been on the concrete.

I was in a big city – a big east-coast city from the look of it – but it seemed uncommonly clean, the traffic flowed, and people nodded and smiled as they passed, as if it wasn’t at all unusual to see me sitting there in the sidewalk.

I got to my feet, and started to brush the dirt off my pants. Surprisingly, there wasn’t any dirt on them, but I noticed I was no longer in my jeans and fleece jacket. Instead, I was wearing a nice grey plaid suit, with a crisp white shirt, and a skinny blue tie with small gold dots on it. I had on black shoes that shined like polished metal in the streetlights.

Oddly, none of this struck me as particularly strange.

I started walking down the street, and noticed that nobody was walking alone. Instead, everyone was either in couples, holding hands and laughing, or walking in knots of a half-dozen or so, black and white, men and women together, full of excitement and horsing around as they made their way down the sidewalk.

I followed the flow of people, and wound up in a crowd outside a bar. I looked up at the awning that projected over the sidewalk. It said “Minton’s Playhouse” in bold letters.

Monk w. Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge, & Teddy Hill at Mintons
Monk w. Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge, & Teddy Hill at Mintons

“OK,” I said to nobody in particular, “now this is getting weird.”

I looked around for someone who could tell me what was going on, and was shocked to see a big, beautiful, archtop jazz guitar leaning against the wall of the building. It was a lovely golden color, with an ebony fingerboard, and white binding all around the body and neck – even inside the f-holes. Strangely, everyone was ignoring it. I wasn’t sure what came over me, but I picked it up, and saw the name, “Benedetto” inlayed in the headstock in abalone. It was a Benedetto Manhattan. Handmade. This was not the kind of instrument you found leaning against the wall of a bar in New York City.

I looked at the crowd again. Everyone was all dressed up, with short haircuts or carefully styled hair, the men in suits and skinny ties, and the women in long skirts, wearing hats, and stockings with seams. I saw the Fords, Chevys, Studebakers, and other old cars passing on the street as bright as if they had just left the showroom. It crossed my mind that Benedetto guitars weren’t made in the 1950’s, which is where – or when – I seemed to be. Then, I remembered I didn’t belong there either.

“What the hell?” I found myself saying to no one in particular. I looked at the people around me. A few looked back knowingly and smiled.

I saw a cop on the corner, and walked up to him.

“Excuse me, officer,” I said.

He turned and smiled. His teeth shined next to his black skin. He had high cheekbones, a thin mustache, and one of those faces that immediately made you feel at ease. His blue uniform was neatly pressed, and the gold badge shined in the streetlights. Out of habit, I glanced at his belt; he carried neither a gun, nor a nightstick, nor handcuffs.

“That’s different,” I thought.

“I found this guitar over there,” I told him, gesturing toward Minton’s. “It’s valuable, and I’d like to find its owner.”

I handed him the Benedetto.

The cop laughed. “It’s yours,” he said, passing the guitar back to me.

I shook my head. The collar and tie brushed my throat, but to my surprise, I felt no discomfort. “No, I just found it . . .”

He interrupted with another laugh, and placed his hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay. Everyone who comes here gets the axe they’ve always wanted.”

“I don’t understand,” I began to say. “Where am I?”

Before he could answer, I heard a loud car engine and the squeal of tires. I turned to see a big silver convertible skid around the corner, knock a trashcan across the sidewalk, and head straight toward us.

The cop laughed. “These folks can explain,” he said, sounding oddly unconcerned – for a policeman – as he nodded toward the several tons of steel careening toward us.

The silver convertible swerved across the street into the wrong lane, heading straight at the crowd in front of the club. I jumped back involuntarily as it screeched to a stop by the curb, with the driver side facing me. I glanced at the logo on the hood.

Thelonious and Nica with the Bentley
Thelonious and Nica with the Bentley

It was a Bentley.

The cop strolled over to the car and tipped his hat.

“Baroness, Thelonious,” he said. “I believe this is the gentleman you’re looking for.”

“Thank you, Gabe,” the driver said. She was an attractive woman in a fur coat. “We’ll take it from here.”

The cop walked away. I noticed he was carrying a trumpet case. For an instant, the streetlights caught what seemed to be wings shining against the back of the dark blue uniform. I closed my eyes hard, and then opened them. He was gone.

The driver smiled at me. “Gabe likes the uniform. He says he wears it to mess with the new guys.”

She wore her brown hair shoulder length, framing dark eyes, gracefully arched eyebrows, and a straight nose. She wore bright red lipstick, and her full lower lip complemented her delicate, perfectly curved upper. She held a crystal glass full of what looked like Scotch in her right hand, with a long cigarette holder clamped between two fingers.

“Get in,” she said. “We’ve got just enough time to get you all checked in, get some dinner, and make it back for the jam session.”

The man in the passenger seat was wearing a crisp charcoal suit and an incongruous black silk Chinese skullcap. The butt end of a cigarette smoldered between his lips, and he squinted through the smoke.

Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk

I took a deep breath and stammered.

“Are you . . . I mean . . . “

She took a generous swallow of what looked like Scotch and interrupted. “I’m Nica. This is Thelonious. We’re sort of the welcome wagon around here.”

She held out the crystal glass. “Take a drink. You look like you need it,” she said.

I took a drink. It was Scotch – good Scotch from the taste. It was warm going down and I felt calmer, but still couldn’t bring myself to say anything. I took another swallow, and handed back the glass.

Thelonious had gotten out of the car and was walking toward a group of men in sharp suits.

“Thelonious,” Nica shouted, “this guy looks like he needs to eat. What’s that place Bird always liked? The one with the good fried chicken?”

I didn’t mention I was a vegetarian. Besides, if this really was heaven, I figured they’d have found a way to make fried chicken without killing anything.

“Bird likes anyplace that serves fried chicken,” he said without looking back.

I looked at the men Thelonious was walking toward. One wore black-rimmed glasses and a beret, and looked familiar. I turned to Nica. “Is that?” I stammered.

Thelonious and Dizzy Gillespie
Thelonious and Dizzy Gillespie

“That’s Dizzy in the beret and glasses,” Nica said. “That’s Bud Powell next to him, then Kenny Clarke and Charles Mingus, she paused. “Not a bad section, huh?”

I couldn’t do much but grunt and nod.

“ And the fellow laughing at Thelonious’ joke is . . .”

“Charlie Parker?” I interrupted.

“The same,” she said. “Look, I know this must feel strange to you, but we’ll sort it out. I promise.”

She took a long drag on the cigarette and exhaled a thick cloud of smoke. It sparkled in the streetlights like it was made of diamond dust. To my surprise, it carried only the slightest smell of tobacco, riding a cool, fresh breeze. Even though I’d always disliked cigarette smoke, I found it pleasant.

“We have to get you checked in,” she explained. “There’s always paperwork,” she added rolling her dark eyes. “Then we’ll go eat, have a few drinks, and we’ll answer all your questions. Then we’ll come back here and you can jam with these guys. You’ll like them.”

Thelonious and Charlie Parker
Thelonious and Charlie Parker

“I can’t play with them,” I protested. “These guys invented bebop, and I’m still taking a beginning jazz improvisation class.”

“Trust me,” she smiled, “you have it in you. If you didn’t, they wouldn’t have sent you here. Besides, I’ll be there, and Charlie will help you out, lend you an amp, or a pick, or whatever you need.”

“Charlie Christian?”

“Is that OK? If not, I could call up Wes, or Joe . . .”

“No. No. He’s great. It’s just . . .”

I saw Thelonious stroll back from the crowd. He stopped near the car, and stared up at one of the streetlights. I looked to see what had drawn his eyes. A moth circled the light. He stood there for a long time, just staring up at it, as if the moth was flying in time to some strange music playing only in Thelonious’ mind.

“He’s not ready,” he said without lowering his glance. “He has to go back.”

“What?” Nica said almost shouting. “Thelonious, ninety percent of the people that show up here are amateurs. They do just fine. He just needs to play more.”

“Not ready,” Thelonious repeated. “We need to send him back.”

Nica picked up a clipboard from the seat of the Bentley, and waved it at him. “Duke made up the Jazz list himself. We were both there, and you said we’d meet this guy. You said he was one of yours.”

“Yeah, but there’s an asterisk by his name. Means I get to send him back if I want. I’m sending him back.”

“There is no damned asterisk,” Nica insisted, waving the clipboard.

“Don’t matter. I’ll square it with Duke.”

“And why does he have to go back?”

Thelonious strolled over to me. He was big, even taller than I’d imagined. He still had the cigarette butt between his lips. He squinted at me through the smoke, and put his arm around my shoulder.

“Cat needs to work on his tone,” he said, looking at Nica.

“He can practice here,” she insisted. “He’ll have plenty of time.”

Monk did not respond, but looked down at me. “What do you think, man?” he asked.

I thought for a minute, and looked down at the Benedetto. “I haven’t been happy with my tone,” I confessed. “I’ve been working on it.”

Nica looked at us both like we were a pair of delinquent kids.

“I can hear this sound in my head,” I tried to explain, feeling terribly self-conscious. “It’s sweet and full and kind of dark. It’s like a voice – like a voice I have inside myself. Sometimes I can get it on the guitar, and it’s magic. But it comes and goes. I start thinking what notes to play, or something, and it’s gone.”

I stopped. I wasn’t sure where all that came from, or how I was able to stand there in a strange suit, with a strange, beautiful guitar in my hand, and just come out and talk to these people I had never dreamed I would meet about my problems with my tone.

Thelonious smiled. “See. He knows.”

“But why does he have to go back?” Nica demanded.

“Nica, honey, it’s not the same up here. He can practice his lines, his riffs, his rhythm,” he said, putting strange accents on the words, making them sound like – well, like a Thelonious Monk song.

“He can learn songs. He can work on playing through changes, but tone is different. That’s flesh and bone. It’s how the meat on your fingers presses on the keys . . .”

He paused, “or strings,” he added looking at me apologetically.

“It’s OK,” I stammered.

“It’s flesh, and bone, and muscle,” Thelonious said. “It’s not in your head, not even in your heart. It’s like your body is part of the instrument. Strictly speaking,” he said glancing at me, “we don’t really have bodies up here.”

I looked down at my hands holding the Benedetto. They looked real enough, but I decided not to ask any questions if I might not like the answer.

“Small hands sound different than big ones, fat fingers different than skinny ones, big guys sound different than small ones, a light touch sounds different than a hard touch, quick sounds different than lazy. Maybe you hear it for the first time when you stretch for a hard chord, or when you’re tired – too tired to think about it: all of a sudden, there’s your sound.”

Nica nodded reluctantly.

“Nica, he’s got to find his tone, or he’ll never be any good. But, he needs his body if he’s going to find it.”

He turned to me. “Right?”

I swallowed and nodded. I wished Nica would give me some more Scotch.

“Let’s send him home,” he said to Nica. “He’ll be back in a few years, and then I’ll be able to use him.”

“Is that OK?” Nica asked me, sounding resigned.

I nodded.

“I don’t know what we’re going to tell Duke,” she said in frustration. Thelonious just smiled at her. She smiled back.

Then – and I don’t know how – I found the courage to walk right up to one of the greatest composers and improvisers of the century and ask him. “Can you give me any advice on how to practice?”

“Work on your tone,” he repeated. “Just listen to what you’re playing.”

“But, how do I do I play your music?” I asked. “I can’t seem to make it sound right.”

Thelonious smiled, than he bent down so close I could smell the tobacco on his breath and the cologne on his skin. So close I could feel his beard against my cheek. He whispered his advice in my ear. Then, he stood up and laughed, and walked around the Bentley to the passenger seat.

I turned to Nica. Somehow, I still had enough courage left to ask her, “When I come back here . . . what about my wife? Will we be together?”

“Is she the one with all the cats?”

I nodded.

“Yeah, she’ll be here. She’s on my list.”

I must have looked confused, because she began to explain, “I get the cat ladies as well as the jazz musicians. It just seems to work out that way.”

“But she’s not really a jazz fan – not like me, anyway. She prefers classical music,” I said.

“We have lots of classical music here,” she said, smiling, “so no problem. I recall Stokowski is her favorite conductor?”

I nodded.

“Leopold owes me a favor. I’ll get her into a rehearsal whenever she wants.”

She drained the last gulp of scotch, tossed the crystal glass into the back seat, and revved the Bentley’s big engine. The cloud of blue smoke swirling out of the exhaust smelled like fresh air. As she and Thelonious sped off into the night, I heard her laugh and shout back:

“Don’t worry! We have everything here. This is New York!”

Nica and Thelonious 2

                                                           

 

I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next, but I had a feeling that if I was going to try out the Benedetto, I’d better do it soon. I sat down on the curb and started to play the first few bars of the chord/melody arrangement of Pannonica I’d been working on. To my surprise, it actually sounded right. As I played, just like it happens when everything is right, my mind seemed to shut out everything else. I lost track of the people, the city sounds, the smells, and the commotion; I lost track of the music starting to come from Minton’s, or playing on the radios in the cars passing by. It’s not like I was shutting out the world, or like it went away. It was more like the whole universe just shrunk around me until it there was nothing left but me, the guitar, the music, and the whole universe rumbled and hummed and sang inside it.

I woke up in a hospital bed.

The smell of Nica’s scotch had been replaced by hospital disinfectant. Instead of her easy smile, I saw a rather stern-looking nurse standing at the foot of my bed.

I saw my wife standing next to me. She’d been crying.

“I thought I’d lost you,” she said, taking my hand.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I went out to take you a cup of coffee, and found you unconscious in a snow bank. Your heart was stopped. The emergency medical techs managed to bring you back.”

She started to cry. “They said you had died.”

She squeezed my hand.

“Will I be OK?” I asked.

She nodded. “They think the snow bank – the cold helped protect you – it protected your brain.”

“Well, I do use it from time to time.”

She started to cry again, but a trace of laughter showed through the tears.

I lay there for several minutes, just squeezing her hand, and thinking about what had happened.

“Honey,” I said, “this is weird, but I had a dream while I was . . . you know.”

She looked at me with concern.

“I dreamed about . . .” I paused. We were not religious, so I didn’t know how it would sound. “Well,” I said finally, “it was about being in heaven.”

“Heaven?”

“I met a pair of angels.”

“Angels?”

“They sent me back.”

“I’m glad they did,” she said. She looked worried, as if the snow bank had failed to preserve some part of my brain.

I smiled at her in a way I hoped she would find reassuring. “Before they sent me back, one of them whispered something in my ear. It was important. You have to help me remember it – I don’t want to forget.”

“What was it?” she asked.

I checked that the nurse had left the room. I motioned for my wife to come close. She bent down toward me, and I whispered in her ear, just like Thelonious had whispered in mine.

“He told me to make the drummer sound good.”

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