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That Bonkers Thelonious Monk Cover

You may have wondered about the circumstances of the cover photograph for Thelonious Monk’s 1968 album Underground. As you might imagine, when the recording came out, the cover received widespread attention. In a particularly enlightening edition of Mosaic Records’ Jazz Gazette online, Michael Cuscuna tells the story of the shoot, including the content of Monk’s one-way conversation with the figure to his immediate left. Mr. Cuscuna is Mosaic’s president.

Richard Mantel is an old friend who was an art director at Columbia Records during its heyday, and in fact was one of the faces on the George Wein album we reissued in our Mosaic singles series. Richard and I worked together at the reactivated Blue Note Records of the ‘80s and for many years, he was Mosaic’s art director. One night at dinner, Richard told me the story of the photo shoot for Thelonious Monk’s celebrated Underground cover:“The photography was done at the studio of Horn/Griner (Steve Horn and Norman Griner). They specialized in lavishly produced and complex photo shoots. The studio was in a townhouse in the Fifties, off Third Avenue. The shooting studio was on the ground floor. That’s where they had constructed, furnished and propped the set.“Monk arrived in a smoky gray Bentley or Rolls Royce, I forgot which. He was chauffeured by “The Baroness”. I know that you know who she was. She wore a pale green watered silk cocktail dress and long gloves. She was also adorned by a lot of opulent jewelry, including, as I recall, a tiara. It was approximately 10:00am.“Monk entered the building, wearing what he wore in the shot (except for the rifle). The cow was standing in the vestibule…she had not yet taken her place on the set. Monk went over and put his arm around her shoulders. He bent down close to her right ear and very calmly and quietly said: “Moo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o.” The cow seemed unimpressed. Monk then just walked onto the set; sat down at that battered upright piano and proceeded to play for about an hour and a half. The piano was terribly out of tune and I’m sure didn’t have all the its keys. But it didn’t matter…it was great! After the photo session Monk got up and left with The Baroness. The only word he had spoken in all that time was to the cow.“

From the recording, here is “Ugly Beauty” with Monk; Charlie Rouse, tenor saxophone; Larry Gales, bass; and Ben Riley, drums.

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