November 23, 2008

Why the Name Monk?

First of all, if you’re expecting to get my given birth name, you’re not going to find it here so read no further.

I’m embarrassed because it’s such a non-story story. Everybody assumes it’s because it’s after Thelonious Monk, the piano player, because they see me playing piano.

But the real backstory is that when I entered Fredonia State in 1968, I was a saxophone major. Unbelievably enough, we music majors at Fredonia didn’t have time to watch stuff on TV, we were too busy in the practice rooms sweating our comps and rehearsing our senior recitals. My hero at that time was Cannonball Adderley. I even saw Cannonball in person at Fredonia. What a great experience that was. One of my housemates there was Onaje Alan Gumbs, who I had the most pleasure interviewing for the jazz archive. He lived in the same house with me, in a musician-filled place off campus.

Fredonia has the most cold and blistering winds in the winter, and I used to wear a long blue coat with the hood pulled up, and as I walked around, one of my fellow classmates, Bill Verity, said "you look like a Monk walking around like that." The moniker stuck. It seemed like a good name for a jazz musician after all.

Parenthetically, during those days of studying saxophone, the music that really got us music majors, and especially those of us interested in jazz, excited came from Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago. The horn sections were fabulous. To this day if an old Rock & Roll song has a little solo by Phil Woods or David Sanborn, I just love it. And to this day I think “Green Onions” is the greatest song ever recorded. I use it as my ringtone on my cell phone. My daughters gave it to me as a Christmas present a few years ago. They downloaded it to my cell phone then dialed the number and made it ring. What a gag!

For a few years after graduation, all my musician friends called me Monk. I taught at Vernon-Verona-Sherrill School system here in Central New York for six years as a music teacher. I was responsible for music in grades K through 12. Those teachers and students knew me by my birth name of course.

Following those six years, I quit teaching and we formed a Rock & Roll band called Mr. Edd (note the two D’s) which had a huge cult following. We traveled the east coast from Florida to Canada, and Buffalo to Boston, and it was truly a great band. This were the good old eighties, when there were frat houses and gigs to be had everywhere and clubs were packed everywhere we went. Anyone who saw Mr. Edd in those days knows who “Monk Rowe” is, but of course, NOT my given name was, because none of my bandmates ever referred to me by my given name, which is a common name for boys. Also that was the time before DWI’s became a serious crime, and smoking was permitted in bars. I used to get a kick out of saying to a huge crowd “show me your beers!” and they would all hold up their beers and cheer. I used to always make a joke about Rich Light our sound man. He is totally bald and a hairdresser. Rich is a fantastic drummer, and mentored my daughter on drums when she was in the marching band in high school. I used to say “you know our light man, Rich, right? He’s a bald hairdresser! Would you go to a bald hairdresser?”

The picture above is a guy in that band I haven’t heard from in years named Garry Hall, note the two R’s. I haven’t heard from Garry but last I heard he was in Florida. He was superb. He used to sing Pink Floyd’s “Brick in the Wall” and in that perfect British accent deliver the line “how can you have your pudding if you don’t eat your meat?” and it was a gas.

And who can forget Jeff Abbe, pictured above? Everybody all loved and respected Jeff and the girls were wild about him with that page boy blond hair. There’s about a million Abbes who live in Rome, New York, but as a tip of the hat to Jeff, we named our current dog “Abbe,” spelled the same way. Jeff was the acoustic and electric guitar player who played a white violin on occasion. All the girls wanted to marry Jeff, but he remained single and shy off stage.

And this was our drummer, Jim Lucas. Wow, what a fabulous Rock & Roll drummer.

And last, but certainly not least, Greeley Ford was our businessman and gig coordinator through our booking agent in Syracuse, DMR. Greeley and his wife Lynda, now deceased, had the difficult job of handling the bookings and trying to pay everybody at least something every week. Greeley is currently on the board at the Stanley Center for the Arts, and now leads the band “Classified,” a nine piece horn band here in Upstate New York.

Also I might mention Joe Bolanowski, our first lead singer and trumpet player. He died in his twenties in an accident, but he was our first lead singer. My role in that band was “creativity” because I did the schtick, which never failed to amuse the audience and band members alike, especially with those intros on the Mr. Edd the talking horse theme song. "A horse is a horse ..."

Unfortunately, that band never was able to get a record deal and so after traveling the Thruway for six years making peanuts we broke up and went our separate ways. We had a four-man road crew who had to be paid first, plus the cost of hauling around all our equipment. If our Mercedes truck needed new tires we didn’t get paid that week.

Mr. Edd was formed in 1980. My oldest daughter was born in 1982, my younger in 1984, and the band broke up in 1986. We could no longer financially afford the experience of Mr. Edd. We needed health insurance and we were really struggling financially.

During the first year of archive interviewing, in 1995, I went on a Caribbean jazz cruise entitled "A Tribute to Oscar Peterson," where we did about 15 interviews in three days. I was there with my wife, and all the ten Anvil cases of recording gear and it was pretty tough but really inspiring. Not only was I going to be able to meet Nat Adderley, Cannonball’s brother and writing partner, but I was going to be given a chance to interview him one-on-one. The promoters, HOSS, Hank and Sherry, graciously provided me with a list of every cabin and ship phone number of all the musicians, so they could contact each other. But me? I was listed under my given name, which wouldn’t have meant anything to the musicians if they had the need to contact me aboard the ship.

That’s when I decided that I really needed to drop the old name. It was not only for that reason, but also because it became very difficult when people would write me checks for gigs because I couldn’t cash them because I didn’t have a checking account at that time under the name of Monk Rowe. In addition, as a composer, I didn’t want my birth name listed in programs under my birth name, I wanted it listed as my musical moniker. So there were many reasons to legally change the name.

So in 1995 I decided to legally change my first name to Monk. Since this occurred in 1995, there is no record on the web of my name ever having been what my given name was. There’s probably hundreds of people if you do a search under that birth name, because, like I said before, it is a very common name.

After the legal name change in 1995, I immediately changed all my permanent records (driver’s license, passport, deed to my house) to be under the new legal name. So there would be no record of the old name.

I was really moved around the year 1998 when the old VVS high school named a scholarship after me, to be given in the name of Monk Rowe, to a promising upcoming musician. I don’t have any say in who gets the scholarship, and it’s not too much money, but still it is a high honor. Sometimes I have people all grown up who tell me they got the scholarship as a kid. I don’t know what their criteria is, but last year coincidentally the kid who got it happened to be a student of mine who takes lessons at Hamilton. That was so cool. The whole process is done through the PTA at VVS, I have nothing to do with the selection process.

But those people out at Joel’s Front Yard Steakhouse in Verona have a stolen street sign way up on their wall which contains my given name, and it’s too funny. And on my gig calendar, which you can see through the portal at under gig list, you will see that is where The Roots of Rock & Roll will be playing this New Year’s Eve. Those people out in Verona can truly say they “knew him when.” Out in Verona, they’re really proud of what I did there in setting up one of the first jazz programs for the kids there. And I am humbled that they have bestowed on me such an honor.

So no, it’s not a moniker I actually chose, but it suits me well. My brother-in-law once said to my wife, when my older daughter was born, “don’t worry about what you name your kid. If you make a mistake, the world will make it right.” My wife said to him “I know, because it’s true for Monk and it worked for me too.”

So now when you Google on the name Monk Rowe in quotes you will get the stuff really about me. That was true until just a few years ago when Elvis Costello annoyingly named some stupid song “Jackson, Monk & Rowe” as a fictional legal firm name, which seems to show up every time there’s a search. It even shows up as the number one hit on Amazon under “Monk Rowe” though that’s not even the title of Elvis’ album, it’s only part of the name of a song contained on that CD on Amazon for sale. How is it that this could be a coincidence? He didn’t title the album “Jackson, Monk & Rowe,” with the exact same spellings as my name. The hits to that stupid song just pollute Google searches, because Google ignores the ampersand. And there’s lots of ways to spell Monk, like Munk or Monke, and, perhaps you didn’t know it, but Roe v. Wade is also spells it Roe, not Rowe.

I’m not too worried though, because I have the dot com name which of course would be the first hit under on any Google search. And though I don’t get paid for them, ringtones are even available from my album “Jazz Life,” though of course there’s nothing available from my first album “Out Standing in his Field.” That album was recorded at UCA Recording Studio in the dark ages of 1989. The CD doesn’t contain a UPC symbol, and, we have never been able to afford a re-release of it. But that’s okay. I do think it’s way cool that some downloads are available of my "Jazz Life" compositions as a ringtone.

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