Straight, no chaser


Rome Neal gets down as Thelonious Monk.

Rome Neal gets down as Thelonious Monk.

Thelonious Monk was one of the primary creators of the bebop style of music in the 1940s. He composed signature tunes like “Round Midnight” and played alongside Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and others. Monk didn’t sell quite as many records as some of his contemporaries, but he earned an enviable reputation as an artist and even made the cover of Time magazine in 1964—one of the few jazz musicians to do so.

Nearly 25 years after his death (and more than 30 years since he stopped touring), many people in this country and abroad still feel Monk had few peers as a pianist and composer. He was also something of an eccentric, and his music—while highly regarded by serious followers of jazz—is not the sort of thing that fits in with the smooth-jazz format found on commercial radio.

Monk presents a great challenge (and opportunity) to actor Rome Neal, whose one-man show Monk comes to Elk Grove January 5 through 8. The show played at an off-Broadway theater in New York for three months last spring.

“What I like about Monk is he’s an artist, an artist who goes through trials and tribulations in the world to get his art across,” Neal said.

Monk features a script by the play’s co-director, Laurence Holder, and music by William Lee (father of film director Spike Lee). The idea for the play came to Neal after he read the part of Monk in another play about Monk and fellow musician Bud Powell. “That was the first time I got turned on to the character of Thelonious Monk,” said Neal. “I fell in love with the characters, and the ambience of the jazz venue that was in the play. It turned me on to jazz and Monk at the same time. And I realized I’d like a one-man show about him, to do myself.”

Neal’s physical resemblance to Monk was also a factor. “People would say, ‘You look like him.’ And some of the changes in my life are kind of similar to some of the things he went through,” Neal admitted.

The play runs about 90 minutes and starts with Monk at the piano. Neal, as Monk, not only plays a few tunes, but also rises from the keyboard and does a little dance around the stage—an idiosyncrasy for which Monk earned something of a reputation. “He was famous for that,” said Neal. “In the middle of one of his piano solos, he’d get up, and the bass player would take a solo, and Monk would do his dance routine. So, I’ve developed a little ballet that I do, dedicated to Monk’s dance. A lot of people love that, because it delves into the soul of the man, without words. You can see another side of Monk in the dance.”

Several musicians who worked with Monk have seen the show and praised Neal’s performance. Drummer Max Roach, who recorded several albums with the pianist, said afterward, “It was Monk.”

The show also deals with some of the difficulties Monk experienced. “Not everything was always good,” Neal said. “The record companies gave him a hard way to go. We touch on that. There’s a point when he deals with a mental illness. That’s in the play. And a point when he deals with drugs. He wasn’t no drug addict, but he dibbled and dabbled with drugs. All those elements are in the play.

“He was also raised in the church,” Neal continued, “and grew up respecting and loving the church, and his mother, and his wife. The dance that I do, it’s a tribute to her. The song I dance to is called ‘Nellie’s My Mate.’”

The local presentation of Monk is part of a series organized by local producer and playwright William A. Parker, which features performers Parker met through the National Black Theatre Festival.

Monk will be performed Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. in the Black Box Theater at Monterey Trail High School, located at 8661 Power Inn Road in Elk Grove. For easiest access to the theater, enter through the high school’s back entrance on Cliffcrest Drive, south of Calvine Road. Admission is $20, and tickets will be available online at or at the door. Call (916) 271-8202 for more information.