Jersey Joe and the Monk

By Ted Sares on November 22, 2013
Jersey Joe and the Monk
One day it occurred to me that Monk played the piano like Jersey Joe Walcott boxed.

Without intending to be, Monk could come off as flashy—maybe like Kid Gavilan or stylish like “El Feo” Rodriguez, but they were all like magicians…

Jersey Joe Walcott

Jersey Joe Walcott (51-18-2) was unique. His non-traditional style of holding his hands low and using his shoulders as weapons combined with his incredible footwork, subtle slipping and parrying, and sneaky and super fast counters made him one of the most dangerous fighters of his time. But it was his “Walcott Shuffle” that confused his opponents and provided him the platform with which to give new definition to the terms cagey and cute. The Walcott Shuffle was the sine qua non of his style. Watching videos of him work his magic in the ring reveals what makes boxing an art form.

Walcott’s calling card was reliance on a crafty persona. He fought in a way that controlled the attacking opponent by redirecting his energy, almost like in aikido. Sometimes, he was so relaxed he hardly appeared to be fighting. But then, after throwing lightening fast combos, he might move out and kind of evaluate things and then move back in with something different. Sometimes he even looked bored, and then suddenly he would cut loose with an explosion of offense that kept his opponent off balance. At times, he tormented and confused many solid fighters making them look downright silly, not unlike a prime Jimmy Young a few decades later.

Walcott, the very essence of perseverance, was a master at luring his opponents to him. Using his patented shuffle, he feinted not only with his hands and feet but with his shoulders as well. Creating effective punching angles, he launched sneaky counters and hooks. Both Joe Louis and Ezzard Charles felt the wrath of Walcott’s cunning. In fact, his left hook KO of Ezzard Charles that came out of nowhere as Joe shuffled in remains one of my all-time favorite knockouts.

Jersey Joe was once training for a fight against a boxer who had a ferocious left hook. Asked if he was worried, Walcott reportedly replied, Nope. I’ll take his left hook and put it in his pocket.

Historian Herb Goldman ranked Walcott the number 13 All-Time Heavyweight; Jersey Joe was inducted into the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1969 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

I worked with his brother Joe Cream in the late ‘60s in New Jersey and at times he would give us the inside on the way his brother Joe (Arnold Cream) approached his work. What it boiled down to was that Jersey Joe was an extraordinary talent who pushed against the boundaries of his craft. Like George Foreman once said, “Boxing is like jazz. The better it is, the less people appreciate it.”

The song in this YouTube is “In this World” by Moby:

Thelonious Sphere Monk

Considered one of the giants of American music, Monk was another who was unorthodox and who improvised while pushing against the boundaries of his art. To jazz aficionados of which I was one and remain so to this day, he was the quintessential hipster (hat, sunglasses and all); to a minority, he was taciturn, temperamental, eccentric, and even childlike. His unique angular melodies and dissonant harmonies shook up the jazz world, and helped usher in the birth of “bebop” or “hardbop.” His work was described as elegantly written and rich with humor and pathos. Hardbop was primarily an East Coast thing while the softer West Coast Jazz was also developing.

Monk worked hard to create his art. In fact, he was a musical genius, albeit the victim of neglected severe bipolarity that would shorten his life. His ability to play off key in a lyrical manner was the ultimate in something very new and wonderful. Perhaps what most linked him with the style of Jersey Joe Walcott were the dissonant harmonies and angular twists that marked his musical style. He combined this with a percussive (bass and drums) attack that featured abrupt, dramatic use of silences and hesitations reminded me of a fighter stopping and assessing the situation before resuming the action:

At times, while the other musicians in the band continued playing, he would stop, stand up from the keyboard and dance for a few moments (likely a result of his illness) before returning to the piano:

Without intending to be, Monk could come off as flashy—maybe like Kid Gavilan or stylish like “El Feo” Rodriguez, but more often than not, they were all like magicians in a sense that they’d each get the job done and sometimes people who would watch them didn’t realize it until well after it was over. They look at the end result and say, “How did that happen?” Think of Jersey Joe toiling in the ring as you watch and listen to this song called “Hackensack.” recorded in 1964:

For years I used to say that the actor Christopher Walken talks like Thelonious Monk plays the piano, but one day it occurred to me that Monk played the piano like Jersey Joe Walcott boxed.

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  1. I dig 05:35pm, 11/29/2013

    I dig

  2. B Red 01:21pm, 11/29/2013

    Boxing and B bop is the same thing when you’re on a virtuoso level, ya dig. It’s like a Rembrandt picture priceless

  3. Ted 01:07pm, 11/23/2013

    The first time I ever used the phrase full-tilt boogie was when I described the Foreman-Lyle classic.  I’d love to come up with a background song for Hagler-Hearns.

  4. Ted 12:51pm, 11/23/2013

    Bang on

  5. Robert Ecksel 11:48am, 11/23/2013

    Ted—Another thing for your consideration: the similar life trajectories of boxers and jazz musicians. Their backgrounds are often similar, complete with deprivation (Miles and Ali are exceptions) and having found their “voice” and identity via an outré outlet. Also, for every Louis Armstrong there are a dozen Billie Holidays, for every Bernard Hopkins there are…well you know the rest.

  6. Ted 11:47am, 11/23/2013

    Robert Ecksel, ah, now I see your point. You are correct. No one addressed it. Both improvise by building off their fundamentals. Both leave the tree trunk but generally return at some point.

  7. Ted 11:40am, 11/23/2013

    Believe it or not, I still participate in a competitive sport, but the music we use while doing it in head banging stuff like AC/DC/ Black Sabbath, Led Zep,, Metallica, etc. and it really works My point is that music and many sports are intertwined. Football players are incented by the drums and brass before they come out under the smoke. Boxer have their own walk-in songs like

    Even skiing engages music.

  8. Ted 11:33am, 11/23/2013

    Robert, I come close to wit: “Monk was another who was unorthodox and who improvised while pushing against the boundaries of his art.”

    Also, ” Jersey Joe was an extraordinary talent who pushed against the boundaries of his craft…” Both were great improvisers and that’s what set them apart. But far more jazz musicians improvise than do boxers..

    Parker would go off to Mars but he always returned. So would Chet Baker. etc etc

  9. Ted 11:29am, 11/23/2013

    Thanks Peter. Much appreciated.

  10. petersilkov 10:04am, 11/23/2013

    Great article Ted, the linking of music with boxing is very interesting.  You can see different music in different boxers, Ray Robinson reminds me of classical music while Muhammad Ali is Jazz and Joe Frazier heavy rock…. Archie Moore would be blues I think!... anyway great article which made me think.  Music of the word.

  11. Robert Ecksel 08:58am, 11/23/2013

    A connection between boxing and jazz which might be a given but no one addressed is that both are improvisatory arts. Whether it’s riffing on the blues or a standard, the fundamentals are building blocks on which jazz artists, like boxing artists, can create a masterpiece in the moment. But the key word is moment, or like Eric Dolphy once said, “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone, in the air, you can never capture it again.”

  12. Ted 07:22am, 11/23/2013

    Thanks Ade. I knew you might like this one.

  13. Adeyinka 07:53pm, 11/22/2013

    Great piece of extrapolation Ted! Coltrane’s music was often muscular and his style intricate but fluid.

  14. Ted 03:28pm, 11/22/2013

    I know far more about modern jazz than I do about boxing. Thing is, jazz doesn’t lend itself to writing as much as boxing does, but I have done a few articles.

    I did one on Frank Rosallino sometime ago.

  15. kid vegas 03:24pm, 11/22/2013

    Do you consider yourself more of a jazz aficionado or a boxing aficionado? You seem to know a lot about the subject.

  16. Ted 01:25pm, 11/22/2013

    I love the work of Bud Powell, Walter. Earl Rudolph “Bud” Powell was a jazz pianist who was born and raised in Harlem, New York City. His greatest influences on his instrument were Monk, who became his close friend, and Art Tatum

  17. Ted 01:18pm, 11/22/2013

    Thanks Djata.

  18. BIG WALTER 01:11pm, 11/22/2013

    Being a professional musician, all I can say is bravo. The MONK was a pioneer and was unique. His techniques are still held in awe to this day. Bud Powell was another who followed in his footsteps.

  19. Tex Hassler 12:35pm, 11/22/2013

    Walcott was one of the smartest, and most crafty fighters that ever lived. It is a shame he did not get the decision in his first fight with Joe Louis, he earned it, and I am a Joe Louis fan. Wonderful article Mr. Sares.

  20. Djata Bumpus 11:43am, 11/22/2013

    This is the best piece that I’ve seem, not just in here, but anywhere else that has linked two art forms…Incredible job!...Cheers!

  21. kid vegas 11:05am, 11/22/2013

    Fantastic stuff here. I listened to each of those songs. The one by MOBY blew me away

  22. Don from Prov 10:02am, 11/22/2013

    Great work, Ted.  Talking about this article, we both mentioned “time”—the idea of being able to play off it, in and outside of it, and I recall a writer (Richard Wright) talking about one boxer “stepping inside the time” of another and knocking him out.  Obviously, both Monk and Walcott understood time and how to employ movement/counter-punctuation.

  23. Ted 09:52am, 11/22/2013


  24. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:14am, 11/22/2013

    Ted Sares-I was listening to George Jones sing “He Stopped Loving Her Today” as I read this…so you can see I’m not exactly tuned in here….haven’t been in fact since Errol Garner caught my attention for a brief time in the late fifties…..but one thing is clear to me and that is that at 76 you haven’t peaked yet because your work seems to get better each time out.

  25. NYIrish 08:44am, 11/22/2013

    Ted, you hit the high note on this one.

  26. dollarbond 07:33am, 11/22/2013

    Magnificent article that I am in total agreement with.

  27. Dan Adams 07:15am, 11/22/2013

    Good read, Ted.  Never thought of a relationship between Walcott and Monk or Jazz, but food for thought, indeed.

  28. Ted 05:00am, 11/22/2013

    Thanks Mike. I just might do that.

  29. Mike Casey 02:57am, 11/22/2013

    Absolute gem of an article, Ted - and the George Foreman quote is spot on re. our mutual loves of boxing and jazz. Oddly enough, I was watching a great BBC documentary last night on Monk and the other greats - including another favorite of mine, John Coltrane. These guys had all the power in the world when they let their foot off the brakes, but they also possessed the most wonderful subtlety. Might be worth lengthening this a bit, throwing in a few extra anecdotes and pitching it to one of the jazz trade mags.

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