genius at work
Thelonious Monk with saxophonist Charlie Rouse, working out a number, “Boo Boo’s Birthday,” during a recording session, 1967
Thelonious Monk (with Charlie Rouse, tenor saxophone; Ben Riley, drums; Larry Gales, bass), “Boo Boo’s Birthday” (Underground [Columbia], 1968)
One of the great discoveries I made in college, besides Bach (10/19/09, 10/24/09, 12/25/09) and Blind Willie Johnson (11/15/09) and Bill Evans (11/18/09) and Hound Dog Taylor (10/30/09), was John Berryman. Hearing him read his poetry, not long before he died (jumping off a bridge in Minneapolis), changed my life. Really. That night made me realize, in ways that I never had before, just how lively and surprising and exciting poetry could be. It made me realize, too, that what a great poem offers is an experience—one you can’t get anywhere else. And so I have Berryman to thank not only for his own poems (especially The Dream Songs [which would be on my desert-island packing list]) but also for making Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wislawa Szymborska, Charles Simic, et al., such important figures in my life. Just as my life would be immeasurably poorer without Thelonious Monk (11/2/09, 11/25/09, today) and Vernard Johnson (12/6/09) and Morton Feldman (11/7/09, 12/5/09) and Lester Bowie (9/8/09, 10/28/09), so too would it be without them.
This recording, for all its technical shortcomings (headphones help), captures some of what I heard in Berryman that night almost 40 years ago. Blustery and grandiose and vulnerable, jazzy and funny: he was all these things—and more.
This is not a cultural occasion, ladies and gentlemen, in case you were misled by anyone. This is an entertainment.—John Berryman
John Berryman (1914-1972), live, Iowa City, 1968