Music Notes: Monk-y Man

NRBQ’s founder brings his lifelong passion for a legend even more into focus.

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and NRBQ play The Hamilton on November 28 (Photo Courtesy of David Yandell)

Even as a kid, NRBQ founding member and piano man Terry Adams knew what he liked: music. And there was one particular musician that he felt a true kinship with, a kinship that would last a lifetime. And it got serious with a birthday request.

“When I first heard Monk, I guess when I was about 14, it immediately made sense to me,” Adams told me from Vermont during a break on NRBQ’s current tour. “At 15, my dad asked me, ‘What would you like for your birthday? Let’s go see a baseball game,’ or something. I said I didn’t care about professional sports, and he said, ‘Well, where would you like to go?’ And I said, ‘You mean it? I’d like to go see Thelonious Monk at the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival.’ I couldn’t believe he did it, bought tickets for all three nights and down we went. ‘Course I left him back in our seats, and I was right down in front of that stage.”

Yes, Terry Adams clearly knew what he liked early on, and he has taken that adoration for Monk’s timeless music and melded into the sound he has helped craft for his own legendary band NRBQ for the last 50 years. But it wasn’t until much more recently that Adams finally decided to put out a specific collection of Monk tunes with his own arrangements, Talk Thelonious. Adams and his current NRBQ lineup will play a few tunes from that collection as well as NRBQ faves at The Hamilton on November 28.

Not long after that memorable 15th birthday, Adams headed up to New York to not only see his idol, but to get to know him. It was a relationship that would last up until Monk’s death in 1982.

“I’ve learned a lot from him, so eventually it came back out finally,” Adams explained. “I had a lot of opportunities to be around Monk and talk with him here and there and learn from the experience, and he’s always been a positive influence on me. As far as the Monk record, it took awhile for it to distill in me. I’m glad that I was asked to do it, I hesitated at first but once I got into it, I realized that I was supposed to do this.”

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Terry Adams album cover (Courtesy Photo)

Thanks to Adams, NRBQ has always had Monk in the mix ever since the early days. “We’ve been doing his songs since the ’60s. They’ve been in our sets or in the books and I was always workin’ to get ’em better, ya know. See what we could with them. Takin’ this music and puttin’ it in a place that is true to its intention and composition, but also where it could be ‘cuz that music can travel, it’s meant to. I think that the songs don’t have to just belong to jazz fans. I think that the songs can be heard in a lot of ways and be appreciated by a lot of people, and obviously they are now.”

It was a gas for Adams to get serious with more Monk music, and even more of a gas when he asked his current band to help him interpret it on his record.

“NRBQ, the guys on this record, it’s amazing how much they learned in a short period of time, and how as great musicians as they are, how on the edge of their seats everybody was. ‘Cuz it’s so easy to make a mistake, there’s so much to it. I could leave one note out of a chord and think, that doesn’t sound wrong, but is it really right?”

Adams and his fabulous band have put out a lot of great music over the last half century. I was actually at their tenth anniversary show in 1977 at Toad’s Place in New Haven. And Adams is damn proud of the music and the NRBQ legacy. But it’s Monk’s music that really is something extra special, something soulful, to Adams.

“It’s rich and beautiful. Beyond words, I think. It’s in its own class, it’s own place. One of the things I get from (his) music is it’s about being yourself and believing in yourself, and I think that’s a big message that comes through there. Beyond the notes.”

NRBQ performs November 28th at The Hamilton,  600 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20005. For tickets, click here

writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover bands Second Wind and Heywoodja plus a Rolling Stones cover band and other local rock ensembles.

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