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Fire Lady or Monk’s Key Broad

Karl Wirsum


acrylic on canvas

48" x 35 3/4"

In the 1960s, Wirsum lived in a predominately White neighborhood on the racially segregated South Side of Chicago. Despite the incredible tension, Wirsum would walk through the fiercely segregated neighborhoods to buy records by jazz musicians Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Thelonious Monk.

For Fire Lady or Monk’s Key Broad, Wirsum was influenced by a photograph in Time magazine of Monk and his wife Nellie. Wirsum though the wife of the uncontrollable jazz musician appeared proud and calm—his rock, his “key broad.” Yet Wirsum renders Nellie as a sexually-charged and fierce soman, a “fire lady,” who’s able to ground her marriage with inner strength and visible grace. Duke Ellington’s song Sophisticated Lady was covered by Monk in 1955. The lyrics read like an ode to his wife, Nellie:

She’s a different lady with a different style
She stands tall and ready like the Eiffel Tower
She is hop to politics, but loves her jazz
She’s go lots of rhythm, she’s got lots of class […]

She’s the kind of person that you’d like to meet
‘Cause she’s always smilin’ and she’s always neat
She can start a fire in the coldest man
She’s a hip slick sister known throughout the land, oh
Sophisticated lady (That’s her name)


The Bill McClain Collection of Chicago Imagism