Learning more about Baltimore murder victim Thelonious Monk

Learning more about Baltimore murder victim Thelonious Monk

When I read through an early draft of this week's issue of City Paper, devoted to the 344 homicides in Baltimore in 2015, I circled the name of victim 212: Thelonious Monk, 28 years old, shot in the chest and dead soon after he arrived at a hospital.

Mostly I did this to double check the spelling of his name (which we had as "Thelonius Monk," different than how the jazz musician who he was presumably named after spells it; we, like the Sun, published it as Thelonius based on police records, which it turns out were wrong). I also circled Monk's name as a reminder to look into this victim some more. I had remembered Monk from back in August and thought that there might be a story here.

Okay, I should say there might be a story I wanted to look into here because everybody has a story and nobody's are more or less important than one another.

Monk stuck in my mind for the obvious reason: He was named after one of jazz's greats and one of my personal favorites. This was just a weird detail that moved me to remember this victim more than I remembered others. Here was something that turned a victim into an exception in my head. Turning murder victims into exceptions, by the way, is a terrible but understandable impulse. As I said when I wrote about Kester Browne, a 7 year old killed with his mother, back in May: "We're always finding ways to value certain bodies over other bodies—maybe just because there's only so much care we can give, so we pick and choose which dead people to project things onto." Consider too, how the police have been focusing so heavily on the death of activist Kendal Fenwick—though that is another, more toxic kind of exceptionalism, I think. Often the police and many others decide for us or try to tell us that certain victims are worth mourning over more than others or implicitly that some murder victims deserve it more than others.

My curiosity about this homicide victim named after a jazz great was sated a bit thanks to the Baltimore Sun's Adam Marton, who posted a touching note on Facebook on Tuesday (he also emailed us to tell us that we, like the Sun, got the spelling of Thelonious' name wrong, which we appreciate greatly). Marton's Facebook note read: "Thelonious Monk, 28, was one of Baltimore's 344 homicide victims in 2015. Thelonious stole my car about a decade ago and while he was never charged with the crime, case search shows he was arrested dozens of times in his short life and spent time in a juvenile detention center. He fished my keys out of the night drop at Mr. Tire one summer night. It was barely an inconvenience, such is my life. Insurance covered a loaner and Brooke and I went on vacation, as planned. When I got my car back a few weeks later, Thelonious has installed a baby seat and a subwoofer and the car was strewn with job applications. It was and remains one of the most heartbreaking scenes of my life. Our lives crossed, however oddly and briefly, and I can't help but think that Thelonious probably never had a chance. A chance to escape, a chance to succeed. The opportunities I have always enjoyed. I feel like maybe he was trying to use my car to make a break for it. I wish he had made it. Rest in peace, young man, I will never forget you."

Marton has since expanded his thoughts on Monk in a longer piece over at The Sun that you should absolutely read and he was on Morning Edition talking about Monk a bit more. The details Marton mentions are heartbreaking—it certainly complicates the images of the car thief as "bad guy" (that Monk stole this car by non-violent means is also worth highlighting)—but I am just as moved by the way it represents a full sense of a person's wants and needs. A baby seat and job applications evidence a young man trying to fulfill responsibilities and do right, while that subwoofer evidences an equally important impulse: to have some fucking fun. To ride out to music; to adjust the car to better capture all that bass in the music you love.

I don't want to make too much of these two Thelonious Monks (there are a few other Thelonious Monks in Maryland Case Search, by the way), but it's a weird thing, sharing a name with a jazz great, and there's something to explore here. Even just why exactly was he named after Monk would be interesting, though I also think that this story is on the brink of going viral in a small way and that's rather icky (and this piece is certainly contributing to that) and maybe we should all fall back. Thankfully, Marton's glimpse into Monk's life was something special. I cannot thank him enough for sharing his story and sharing it in such an empathetic and self-aware way.

But still: Being named after Monk, one of the most wild and improvisational and unfettered musicians (and I think it should be noted, not a snitch as a famous incident involving the arrest of Bud Powell suggests) makes so much sense for a troubled, trying-hard guy like the 28 year-old, now-dead Thelonious Monk. Jazz, especially Monk's music, is so often about trying to find a way to get free in the face of stupid fucking restrictions—especially when, say, he covers a standard and turns it inside out, making something new out of something so played out; or in his improvisational impulses—there it's the sound of Monk trying his hardest to break out and be somebody and create a musical moment that can't be replicated.

After I read Marton's Facebook post, for reasons that are both obvious and oblique, I put on my favorite Monk recording: 1964's "It's Monk's Time." The first track, 'Lulu's Back In Town,' begins with a few minutes of playful, occasionally discordant piano plinking and pounding. Then a little after the three minute mark, all that gets bumped out of the way for a jaunty shuffle provided by Charlie Rouse's tenor sax, Ben Riley's drumming, and Butch Warren's bass accompanying Monk's piano. It seemed like 'Lulu's Back In Town' could soundtrack Marton's vision of Monk's escaping with his car, making a break for it, chaotic impulse hammered into something briefly beautiful and worth escaping into.

It'd probably sound pretty great oozing out of a subwoofer too.