Saturday, February 23, 2008


“They were always telling me for years to play commercial, be commercial. I’m not commercial. I say play your own way. Don’t play what the public wants—you play what you want and let the public pick up on what you’re doing—even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years.”
--Thelonious Monk

“Monk is a virtuoso of the specific techniques of Jazz, in challengingly original uses of accent, rhythm, meter, time and of musically expressive space, rest, and silence…He is a major jazz composer, the first since Duke Ellington…His repertory abounds with intriguing melodies, truly instrumental pieces…To play Monk properly, musicians justly testify, you have to know the melody and the harmony and understand how they fit together…It is a sign of the great Jazz composer that his sense of form extends beyond written structure and beyond individual improviser, to encompass a whole performance…So it is with Monk.”

--Martin Williams

By 1955 the legendary pianist-composer Thelonious Sphere Monk (b. October 10, 1917) had been playing music professionally for over twenty years. Like everything else about him--from his highly original name to his stubbornly independent, innovative, and utterly idiosyncratic approach to nearly every aspect of his extraordinary life and career--Monk was his “own man” from very early on. Moving with his family from North Carolina to New York at the age of five in 1922, the precocious Monk always went his own way and made his own decisions about how he wanted to live—even as a child. Thus, during his junior year in the spring of 1934 Monk left the acadmically rigorous and prestigious Stuyvesant High School in New York (which was and is a very competitive citywide magnet school which only admitted the best and most gifted students in the city) to pursue a professional career in music. He was just 17 at the time but had already impressed a number of his teachers and musical peers as a young man of great talent and potential. Coming from a very proud and independent black working-class family who loved music and insisted that their three children take music lessons (both of Monk’s parents worked and Thelonious, Sr.—Monk’s father--also played piano), Monk initially resisted his mother’s suggestions that he play violin and later the trumpet (neither of which Monk liked). However, young Thelonious was utterly fascinated by his sister’s Marion’s piano lesons which she took on the family’s upright piano and the ten year old much preferred listening to her, especially when her music teacher came to their house. By the age of 12 in 1930 Monk had already learned to play the piano very well on his own by ear and keen observation. Highly impressed, the music teacher, a Mr. Wolfe (who was then a student at New York’s famed Julliard School of Music), told Monk’s parents not to waste any more money on their daughter’s lessons since Marion had no real interest in playing music, but it was very apparent to the teacher that her younger brother Thelonious had “a prodigious talent.” This quickly led to the highly precocious youngster enrolling in music courses in school and taking professional lessons from a series of private teachers. Since Monk also excelled academically in math and physics it wasn’t long before Monk began formally composing music, using his command of harmony and melodic ideas to augment his already extraordinary rhythmic sense. By the time Monk turned 19 in 1936 he had already written a number of major compositions, most notably “Ruby My Dear,” that were destined to become Jazz classics.

In 1936 Monk began playing on the road as a touring professional with an evangelist(!) from the Santified church named Reverend Graham (who was known publically as “The Texas Warhorse”) who sang and preached in various churches while Monk’s trio played rollicking gospel and rhythm and blues tunes behind her. It’s important to note that as early as 1934 Monk and his trio had already worked at small gigs and dances in New York, usually earning small amounts in tips and cover charges. Monk remained with the evangelist’s troupe for over two years traveling all over the country in both cities and small rural towns alike. This day-to-day immersion in the challenging demands of black folk vernacular styles as both accompanist and ensemble leader gave the dedicated young musician very valuable experience and provided the early aesthetic foundation for his eventually unique and independent styles of composing and improvising music in the Jazz tradition.

In 1938 Monk, homesick from the lonely rough and tumble life of the road, returned to his beloved New York and soon based his own playing style on the stride piano traditions established by such living African American piano legends (and Monk’s personal idols) as James P. Johnson (who happened to live near Monk’s west side Manhattan neighborhood at the time) and Fats Waller. In addition Monk was being deeply influenced by the pianist/composer/bandleader Duke Ellington who also rooted his piano style in the stride tradition, a profound black vernacular music aesthetic of the early 1900s. It was the highly innovative modernity of Ellington’s fecund ideas in piano harmony, rhythmic structure, and orchestral arrangements that inspired Monk in a particularly special way and revealed the possibilities for him to continue and expand on his own experimental efforts.

In 1940 the now 22 year old Monk became house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse, a small Harlem nightclub and nightly gathering place for many aspiring young Jazz musicians and composers who came together on a regular basis at the club to jam and experiment with new musical ideas during afterhours at all night and early morning sessions. These sessions soon became legendary as the place where in the mid 1940s the revolutionary Jazz style ‘Bebop’ was born. Monk’s deep involvement with this movement during endless jam sessions in the early and mid 1940s made Monk’s name well known to other musicians who became very familiar with his challenging compositions and unusual solo playing. This was of course long before the general listening public became aware of his talents. From 1940-1945, an intensely creative period in which Monk wrote many new compositions including his signature classic “’Round Midnight” in 1941, Monk continued to work in relative obscurity at Minton’s and other small clubs in Harlem and in the famed midtown 52nd street clubs and bars where Monk and his angular dissonant harmonies, dynamic rhythms, and soaring, lyrical melodies quickly made him a leading and influential figure among the modernist Jazz cognoscenti. Working closely with such fellow pioneers of this exciting new music as the extraordinary drummer Kenny “Klook” Clarke, revolutionary guitarist Charlie Christian, iconic saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, and trumpet legend John “Dizzy” Gillespie, Monk soon became a major mentor to many young emerging musicians like the then newly arrived 19 year old Miles Davis in 1945. By this time scores of musicians were experimenting with new harmonic structures, melodic ideas, and rhythmic conceptions. The intense cross-fertilization of styles, ideas, and musical structures were deeply rooted in the modern experimentations with form and content that were sweeping all the arts of the period in literature, painting, dance, and cinema and “Bebop” (or as the musicians themselves simply called it “modern music”) was at the forefront of this cultural and aesthetic revolution.

It was abundantly clear, as Monk himself told a number of interviewers, that his style was “more original” than many of the standardized, generic, and conventional forms of the Bebop movement. Yet Monk was already one of the primary architects of the best and most creative aspects of this movement and was a major source of distilling, synthesizing, and extending the ideas and structures from the myriad of historical musical sources that this generation of modernist musicians consciously absorbed, honed, and developed: Jazz swing styles inherited from the 1920s and ‘30s (e.g. Louis Armstrong, Ellington, Art Tatum, Lester Young, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, etc.) both ‘popular’ and ‘avant-garde’ advances in 20th century classical music (e.g. Stravinsky, Varese, Hindemith, Ives, Bartok, Prokofiev, Ravel, Debussy, etc.), and new black vernacular uses/appropriations of the rich blues and rhythm and blues/rock ‘n roll traditions, as well as various forms of gospel/spiritual music.

All this and more went into Monk’s complex and powerful compositions that while quite intricate and even difficult in harmonic terms, somehow remained both very lyrical (if quirkily idiosyncratic) melodically, as well as creatively connected to black vernacular dance rhythms. This combination of stylistic elements became a trademark of Monk’s compositions and improvisations and led him to finally getting an offer in 1947 to record as a leader of his own ensembles. Now thirty years old and a mature young artist in many respects (though still unknown to people outside of the music), Monk recorded two albums worth of his original compositions (and a few standards) with the small recording label known as Blue Note. Boldly entitled The Genius of Modern Music, Volumes I & II these records put Monk on the mainstream music map for the first time and introduced the man often rather archly referred to in Jazz publications and the mainstream media as “The High Priest of Bebop,” to a new Jazz audience that were just beginning to respond to the innovations of the modernists in the music. Despite this new, limited recognition Monk was still barely making ends meet and was desperately struggling to stay above water economically. However, Monk categorically refused to give up his musical identity or compromise his artistic vision in any way despite many pressures to do so. His first recordings were often lauded (or greatly misunderstood) by the critics and journalists who continued to interview and write about him for a wide range of magazines and newspapers both in and outside the general Jazz world. The laconic, witty, and candid pianist was always considered great copy for the media. However Monk remained almost invisible to any mainstream audience of music lovers.

This situation of severe commercial isolation and economic marginalization during a very creative and productive period of composing and performing his music was juxtaposed to a concomitant rise in status and prestige by fellow musicians, composers, and critics that continued well into the 1950s. Monk continued to record on a regular basis for the important small recording labels Blue Note, Prestige, and Riverside. Thus he began the series of major, classic recordings that quickly established his reputation as one of the most significant Jazz composers and soloists in modern music. It was also during this time that Monk first began to be mentioned as the most important composer in the music since the great Duke Ellington revolutionized the Jazz orchestra in the 1920s. At the height of the Bebop craze from 1948-1954 and the justly rapid ascension of Charlie “Bird’ Parker and Dizzy Gillespie as living icons of the movement, Monk made an equally revolutionary breakthrough himself in an utterly independent personal style that drew from bebop conventions (as it did from swing, rhythm and blues, classical, and gospel traditions) but were at the same time completely fresh and different in form and content from his numerous influences. These recordings were made with many of the most important, original, and talented musicians in Modern Jazz--Parker, Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Percy Heath, Max Roach, and Kenny Dorham, among others--and in many ways served as the basic creative and aesthetic foundation of where Jazz was to evolve and grow after 1955.

Thus by the mid-fifties Thelonious Sphere Monk II was a man who already had a very clear and completely masterful command of the modernist and vernacular traditions that characterized the revolutions in both popular and avant-garde music during the post WWII era. This knowledge and understanding on both an innovative theoretical and performance level profoundly transformed the 1955-1975 era in Jazz and made Monk, along with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman the leading musical figures in a particularly tumultuous and exciting period of American art and culture.

The visionary quality of Monk’s musical aesthetic lay in an intensely self conscious and self reflexive effort to simultaneously question, critique, and fundamentally rethink the traditionally specific roles and identities of harmonic structure, melodic form, and rhythmic content in modern music and reassert/reclaim SOUND itself as the most important individual and collective element in both improvisational and composed ensemble settings alike. For decades since the 1890s both African American and European/white American popular, vernacular, and (semi)classical musics had been dependent on inherited conventional modes of organizing musical patterns through the predominance of either harmony (songform structures), melody (songform lyrics), or rhythm (fixed metrical time). By the early 1900s various avant-garde practices in the United States and Europe had begun to overtly upset and challenge these conventions somewhat (by breaking up and/or distorting/rearranging the forms themselves) but still largely in terms of the central role of fundamentally Western conceptions and methodologies that favored a critical embrace (dissonance) or dismissive denial (atonality) of the diatonic scale as a ‘negative’ reference (e.g. Schoenburg, Ives, Webern, etc.). However, through the then revolutionary interventions of such major figures as Louis Armstrong and Ellington by the early 1920s, Jazz began creatively embracing and appropriating conventional music structures and ideas from a myriad of western sources while subtly transforming and subverting them with highly idiosyncratic (and African derived) methods of either using dissonant or unorthodox harmonies as well as crosscutting and constructivist architectural rhythms (a structural and expressive device known as ‘riffing’) in both compositional and improvisational contexts. It’s crucial to note that the major black Jazz composers, improvisors, and arrangers of the 1920s and ‘30s (Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Art Tatum, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins) were very adept at using these sources while also creating and improvising entirely new ways of expressing melodic lyricism and ‘pop’ song forms such as Louis Armstrong’s brilliant inventions of ‘scat’ singing and ‘swing’ instrumental styles.

Out of this historical maelstrom of multinational aesthetic and cultural traditions and conceptions, Monk consciously critiqued, individually reworked, and creatively extended and subverted the conventions of 20th century modernist and vernacular sources (including those of ‘Bebop’) to forge his own vision of what constituted ‘modern music.’ The first principle was a reliance and insistence on changing the sound of the piano (and by extension other instrumental voices in the ensemble) through an entirely new approach to note articulation, timbral dynamics, and use of temporal/spatial elements in his own improvisations and composing material for other musicians in his groups. As a result many early listeners to Monk’s music--musicians, critics, and general listeners alike-- thought that Monk was not a very technically accomplished pianist (again in the strictly Western European traditional/classical terms which were the canonical norm in the United States).26 This misunderstanding and profound ignorance of the actual sources of Monk’s methods and approach to instrumental expression and compositional structure was an impediment to many people in jazz circles until the critical and listening Jazz public (and many musicians as well) finally ‘caught up’ to many of Monk’s innovations by the late 1950s. By then Monk was already an established twenty-five year jazz veteran whose once radical contributions to voicing, phrasing, and tempo were finally the ‘new modern mainstream’ of the Jazz tradition.

The extraordinary recordings that Monk made from 1955-1965 only further solidified and cemented this reputation and suddenly made his work de rigueur for the young, emerging innovators and radicals of the period. In 1955 Monk finally began to receive the commercial attention (and monetary success) that had previously eluded him without compromising himself by ‘going commercial’ in any way as an artist. This reality completely validated Monk’s famous assertion that one must ‘play [your] own way’ and ensured that he would enter the rarefied pantheon of the greatest musicians and composers in the history of his art completely on his own terms. It was a profound lesson in artistic integrity, dedication to craft, and disciplined perseverance that would serve as a beacon for an entire new generation of gifted, ambitious players and composers in the 1960s, the ‘70s, and beyond who recognized that Monk’s greatest and most significant contributions lie not only in his fierce aesthetic commitment but in not allowing himself to be corrupted and distracted by the relentless demands and pressures of the marketplace. The result was one of the most singular, influential bodies of work in the entire canon of 20th century music.

(This essay is an excerpt from a new book-in-progess by Kofi Natambu entitled A BRAND NEW BAG: How African Americans Revolutionized U.S. Culture & Changed the World, 1955-1975)