Thelonious Monk

Thelonious was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina on October 10, 1917. His mother, Marion, and two of his siblings, Thomas, arrived in New York City when he was just four years old. The Monks, unlike other Southern migrants, settled in Manhattan’s West 63rd Street, near the Hudson River, instead of heading straight to Harlem. Three years later, his father, Thelonious Sr. joined the family but health concerns forced him to return home to North Carolina. His son’s musical interests were influenced by his time spent playing the piano, ‘Jew’s harp” and harmonica during his stay. Young Monk was a talented musician, a great student, and an excellent athlete. At nine years old, he began to play the piano after studying briefly the trumpet. When Marion’s piano teacher accepted Thelonious as a student, he was nine years old. In his teen years, he was already playing rent parties and sitting in at the organ and piano of a local Baptist Church. He is also credited with winning several amateur hour competitions at Apollo Theater. Monk was admitted to Peter Stuyvesant High School, one of the best in the city. He dropped out of sophomore year to pursue music, and took a job as a piano player for a traveling evangelist/faith healer around 1935. After two years of playing, he returned to form his own band and continued playing local bars and small clubs until he was hired by Kenny Clarke as the Minton’s Playhouse’s house pianist in Harlem. Legend has it that Minton’s was the birthplace of the “bebop revolution”. After-hours jam sessions at Minton’s, as well as similar musical gatherings at Monroe’s Uptown House and Dan Wall’s Chili Shack, attracted a new wave of musicians who were brimming over with fresh ideas about harmony. These included Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gilespie, Mary Lou Williams and Kenny Clarke. Bud Powell, a close friend and fellow pianist was also present at Minton’s. Monk’s innovative harmonic arrangements were crucial to the growth of jazz during this time. His compositions, including “52nd Street Theme,” Round Midnight, “Epistrophy,” and “Round Midnight” (co-written by Kenny Clarke) were favorites of his contemporaries. Monk was a pioneer in bebop music, but he also set a new standard for modern music that few were willing to follow. Monk, unlike most bebop pianists, played only sparse chords with the left hand and stressed fast eighth and sixteenth notes in their right hands. Instead, he combined an active right and left hand to create a unique rhythm that used the whole keyboard. Monk’s use of silence and space was a hallmark of an era where fast, dense, virtuosic solos were common. Monk’s unique phrasing, economy of notes and sonic sensitivity allowed his sidemen to explore the world without being restricted by the piano’s preset pitches. Monk, as a composer, was more interested in creating new melodic lines than popular chord progressions. He preferred to create a new architecture for his music that melds harmony and rhythm seamlessly. Monk said, “Everything that I play is different,” and he meant it in three ways: different melody, different harmony and different structure. Every piece is unique. . . . When the song tells an interesting story, it will get a certain sound. . . Monk was not recognized for his contributions to modern jazz’s early development. Apart from occasional gigs with Kenny Clarke’s, Lucky Millinder, Kermit and Scott bands, Monk was not a major player in jazz until 1944 when Coleman Hawkins, tenor saxophonist, hired Monk for a long engagement and began recording with him. Monk’s music was initially criticized by many musicians and critics. Blue Note, a small label at the time, signed Monk to his first contract. He was thirty-years old when he entered the studio in 1947 to record his first session. He had been a part of the jazz scene for almost half his life. He was familiar with the music scene and had hired musicians he believed could deliver during his first two years at Blue Note. Although they were not well-known at the time, many of them proved to be exceptional musicians. These included trumpeters Idrees and George Taitt, twenty-two-year-old Sahib Shihab, and seventeen-year old Danny Quebec West on alto and tenor saxophones. Billy Smith was on tenor and Gene Ramey and John Simmons were bassists. Monk used Rossiere “Shadow”, Count Basie’s veteran drummer, on some recordings. Art Blakey was the drummer on other recordings. Monk’s final Blue Note session in 1952 as a leader is surrounded by an all star band that includes Lou Donaldson (alto), Lou Thompson (tenor), Nelson Boyd and Max Roach on drums. Although Monk’s Blue Note sides today are considered some of the greatest recordings of his, they were a commercial failure at the time. Harsh, ignorant criticism restricted Monk’s chances of working, which was something he needed in order to be happy, especially after his marriage with Nellie Smith in 1947 and the birth, Thelonious Jr. in 1949. Monk was able to find work, but he did not compromise his musical vision. Monk’s already difficult financial situation was made worse by his false arrest for possession of narcotics. He was essentially taking the rap from Bud Powell. Monk was then denied gigs in his hometown for six years after being stripped of his cabaret “license”, which is a police-issued card that jazz musicians cannot use in New York City clubs. He continued to play in Brooklyn’s neighborhood clubs, including Tony’s Club Grandean. He also composed new music and recorded several trio and ensemble records for the Prestige Label (1952-1954), where he performed with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Milt Jackson. He celebrated the birth in the fall of 1953 of his daughter Barbara. The following summer, he traveled across the Atlantic to play at the Paris Jazz Festival. He recorded his first solo album, Vogue’s first, during his stay. These recordings would establish Monk’s reputation as one of the most inventive solo pianists of the 20th century. Monk signed with Riverside in 1955 and recorded a number of outstanding LP’s that received critical attention. These included Thelonious Monk plays Duke Ellington, Brilliant Corners and Monk’s music. His second solo album, Thelonious Monk alone, was also recorded. With the assistance of Baroness Pannonica De Koenigswarter (his friend and sometime patron), he finally got his cabaret card back and enjoyed a long and successful performance at the Five Spot Cafe, where he was joined by John Coltrane, Wilbur Ware, Ahmed Abdul-Malik, and Shadow Wilson as drums. His career took off from that point. His collaborations with Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry and Clark Terry, as well as arrangements with Hall Overton were highly praised by critics. Monk led a big band that was a success at Town Hall in 1959. It was almost as if Jazz audiences finally got Monk’s music. Monk established a permanent quartet that included Charlie Rouse (later Butch Warren, then Larry Gales), on tenor and Frankie Dunlop (later Ben Riley), on drums. His own big band performed at Lincoln Center (1963) and the Monterey Jazz Festival ( 1963). The quartet toured Europe in 1961, and Japan in 1963. Monk signed in 1962 with Columbia Records, one of the most important labels in the world. In February 1964, he was the third jazz musician to grace Time Magazine’s cover. Monk’s eccentricities were a growing media fascination. His behavior off and on the bandstand was often more important than his music. Media helped create the mythical Monk, the reclusive, naive and idiotic savant whose musical concepts were believed to have been entirely intuitive, rather than the result of intense study, knowledge, practice, and practice. His reputation as a recluse (Time called Monk the “loneliest Monk”) shows how misunderstood Monk was. Johnny Griffin, Monk’s former sideman and tenor saxophonist, said that Monk was a bit of a homebody. “If Monk’s not working, he’s not on the scene.” Monk remains at home. Monk goes away to rest. Monk was not like the stereotyped jazz musician. He was dedicated to his family. Monk was a regular at family events and played birthday parties. He also wrote complex songs for his children, including “Little Rootie Tootie”, “Boo Boo’s Birthday” for his son and “Green Chimneys” for his daughter. The Monk family survived long periods without work, severe financial hardships, constant criticisms, heavy road trips, bouts of illness, and the loss close to their friends. Monk’s Dream and Criss Cross were some of his most successful albums in the 1960s. Columbia/CBS Records began to focus on a younger audience that was more rock-oriented, and Monk and other jazz musicians were no longer a priority. Monk’s last recording with Columbia was a November 1968 session with Oliver Nelson’s Orchestra. This recording proved to be both an artistic as well as a commercial disaster. The pianist was kept out of the studio by Columbia’s indifference and Monk’s declining health. Charlie Rouse quit the band in January 1970. Columbia then quietly removed Monk from its roster two years later. Monk recorded fewer records and accepted fewer engagements over the next few years. His quartet included saxophonists Pat Patrick, Paul Jeffrey, and his son Thelonious, Jr., who took over drums in 1971. Monk made his last public appearance in July 1976, after touring extensively with the “Giants of Jazz” from 1972 to 1973. This was a type of bop revival group that included Dizzy Gillespie and Kai Winding, Sonny Stitt and Al McKibbon. Monk gave up playing due to fatigue, physical illness, and possibly creative exhaustion. He suffered a stroke on February 5, 1982 and was never conscious again. Twelve days later, he passed away. Thelonious Monk, a true master of American music, is widely recognized today. His compositions are the foundation of jazz music and are performed by many artists. His life has been the subject of numerous award-winning documentaries, biographies, scholarly studies, primetime television tributes, as well as award-winning documentaries. There is even an Institute named after him. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz was established to promote jazz education, and to encourage and train new generations of musicians. This is a fitting tribute for an artist who was willing to share his musical knowledge with others, but also expected originality in return. Robin D. G. Kelley Ph.D.,

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