Thelonious Monk

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I love the way Thelonius Monk wrote music. Especially intriguing was the way he would start a phrase on beat one and then repeat the phrase beginning on beat two. Nice feeling of surprise in the melody. Very cool.

Wayne Grosvenor

Thelonious Monk

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
 

Thelonious Sphere Monk[2] (October 10, 1917[3] – February 17, 1982) was an American jazz pianist and composer considered "one of the giants of American music".[4] Monk had a unique improvisational style and made numerous contributions to the standard jazz repertoire, including "Epistrophy", "'Round Midnight", "Blue Monk", "Straight, No Chaser" and "Well, You Needn't". Monk is the second most recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington, which is particularly remarkable as Ellington composed over 1,000 songs while Monk wrote about 70.[5]

His compositions and improvisations are full of dissonant harmonies and angular melodic twists, and are consistent with Monk's unorthodox approach to the piano, which combined a highly percussive attack with abrupt, dramatic use of silences and hesitations. This was not a style universally appreciated; poet and jazz critic Philip Larkin dismissed Monk as 'the elephant on the keyboard'.[6] [1]

Monk's manner was idiosyncratic. Visually, he was renowned for his distinctive style in suits, hats and sunglasses. He was also noted for the fact that 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 before returning to the piano.

He is one[7] of five jazz musicians to have been featured on the cover of Time (the other four being Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis, and Dave Brubeck) as of 2010.[8]

Early life

Thelonious Monk was born October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the son of Thelonious and Barbara Monk, two years after his sister Marion. A brother, Thomas, was born in January 1920.[9] In 1922, the family moved to 243 West 63rd Street, in Manhattan, New York City. Monk started playing the piano at the age of six. Although he had some formal training and eavesdropped on his sister's piano lessons, he was largely self-taught. Monk attended Stuyvesant High School, but did not graduate. He toured with an evangelist in his teens, playing the church organ, and in his late teens he began to find work playing jazz.

In the early to mid 1940s, Monk was the house pianist at Minton's Playhouse, a Manhattan nightclub. Much of Monk's style was developed during his time at Minton's, when he participated in after-hours "cutting competitions" which featured many leading jazz soloists of the time. The Minton's scene was crucial in the formulation of bebop and it brought Monk into close contact with other leading exponents of the emerging idiom, including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, Charlie Parker and later, Miles Davis. Monk is believed to be the pianist featured on recordings Jerry Newman made around 1941 at the club. Monk's style at this time was later described as "hard-swinging," with the addition of runs in the style of Art Tatum. Monk's stated influences included Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and other early stride pianists. In the documentary Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, it is stated that Monk lived in the same neighborhood in New York City as Johnson and knew him as a teenager.

Mary Lou Williams, among others, spoke of Monk's rich inventiveness in this period, and how such invention was vital for musicians since at the time it was common for fellow musicians to incorporate overheard musical ideas into their own works without giving due credit. "So, the boppers worked out a music that was hard to steal. I'll say this for the `leeches', though: they tried. I've seen them in Minton's busily writing on their shirt cuffs or scribbling on the tablecloth. And even our own guys, I'm afraid, did not give Monk the credit he had coming. Why, they even stole his idea of the beret and bop glasses."[10]

Early recordings (1944–1954)

In 1944 Monk made his first studio recordings with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet. Hawkins was among the first prominent jazz musicians to promote Monk, and Monk later returned the favor by inviting Hawkins to join him on the 1957 session with John Coltrane. Monk made his first recordings as leader for Blue Note in 1947 (later anthologised on Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1) which showcased his talents as a composer of original melodies for improvisation. Monk married Nellie Smith the same year, and in 1949 the couple had a son, T. S. Monk, who is a jazz drummer. A daughter, Barbara (affectionately known as Boo-Boo), was born in 1953.

In August 1951, New York City police searched a parked car occupied by Monk and friend Bud Powell. The police found narcotics in the car, presumed to have belonged to Powell. Monk refused to testify against his friend, so the police confiscated his New York City Cabaret Card. Without the all-important cabaret card he was unable to play in any New York venue where liquor was served, and this severely restricted his ability to perform for several crucial years. Monk spent most of the early and mid-1950s composing, recording, and performing at theaters and out-of-town gigs.

After his cycle of intermittent recording sessions for Blue Note during 1947–1952, he was under contract to Prestige Records for the following two years. With Prestige he cut several highly significant, but at the time under-recognized, albums, including collaborations with saxophonist Sonny Rollins and drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach. In 1954, Monk participated in a Christmas Eve session which produced most of the albums Bags' Groove and Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants by Miles Davis. Davis found Monk's idiosyncratic accompaniment style difficult to improvise over and asked him to lay out (not accompany), which almost brought them to blows. However, in Miles Davis' autobiography Miles, Davis claims that the anger and tension between Monk and himself never took place and that the claims of blows being exchanged were "rumors" and a "misunderstanding".[11]

In 1954, Monk paid his first visit to Europe, performing and recording in Paris. Backstage Mary Lou Williams introduced him to Baroness Pannonica "Nica" de Koenigswarter, a member of the Rothschild family and a patroness of several New York City jazz musicians. She would be a close friend for the rest of Monk's life, including taking responsibility for him when she and Monk were charged with marijuana possession.