Friday, February 13, 2009

Lance Armstrong and Thelonious Monk

Armstronglook In bicycle racing legend it is now known as "the look." Lance Armstrong had been showing signs of fatigue for days when he and his rival Jan Ullrich fought out the tenth stage of the 2001 Tour de France. Ulrich had reacted to those signs by putting relentless pressure on Armstrong, and thus fatiguing himself. But no mortal and precious few Olympian deities could match Armstrong in an Alpine climb.

As the road began a steep rise toward the 21 switchback turns on the monstrous ascent of L'Alpe d'Huez, the rivals were no more than a half-wheel apart after two earlier climbs and hours in the saddle. Suddenly, Armstrong accelerated, opening a gap of about 10 yards.

Out of the saddle, his toes pointed down as he danced on the pedals, Armstrong suddenly slowed and looked over his left shoulder, his eyes fixed on Ullrich's face for four or five seconds, seemingly challenging his chief rival to match the bold move.

The German rider's eyes were shielded by sunglasses, but everything else about his expression showed despair. He jerked at his radio earpiece and grimaced as Armstrong lit the afterburners, roaring alone toward the peak.

Eight miles later, Armstrong had gained two huge minutes on the 1997 champion, sealing his third Tour victory before the three-week race was half over.

Sports Illustrated columnist Austin Murphy declared afterward that Armstrong's audacious stare "was exactly when cycling officially lost its status as a fringe sport in this country."

Armstrong's "fatigue" was, of course, partly strategy and all showmanship. It captures all that is great about a sport like cycling.

Monk2 Ok, it's a stretch, but I thought of this when reading about and listening to a legendary recording session at the Rudy Van Gelder studio in Hackensack, New Jersey, on Christmas Eve, 1954. Miles Davis was the leader, as usual. The band consisted of Thelonious Monk on piano, Milt Jackson on vibes, Percy Heath on bass, and Kenny Clark on drums. Miles was never an easy person to like, and he didn't make it any easier on Monk when he insisted that Monk not play behind his solos. It was rumored that Davis actually punched Monk, but that seems not to be true. Monk later said "Miles'd got killed if he had hit me."

Monk did as he was instructed, but during his solo on "The Man I Love," he played a brilliant joke on Miles. He was playing at a slower tempo, but in sync with the band, when he suddenly seemed to get lost. Here is how Loren Schoenberg puts it in The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Jazz.

Monk feigns confusion with the double meter and then miraculously finds his place precisely at the point during the bridge where the lyrics refer to someone finding someone (Monk was known for his ironic and powerful sense of humor). He then proceeds to pile it on like gangbusters, without a spec of the "difficulty" he had before.

That is the jazz nerd's version of Armstrong's look. Of course, it may be that Monk was really confused, just as Armstrong may have really been close to collapse when he miraculously revived. But I hold, along with Aristotle, that poetry is truer than history, and I have given you the poetic versions of the two events. Both stories tell you more about genius and manly virtue than any demythologized version ever could.

Listen for yourself:

Miles Davis/The Man I Love (take 1)/Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants

1 comment:

  1. Is that the good one? I thought the silence of Monk was in the Take 2...