SO LET'S CELEBRATE AND PAY HOMAGE TO THIS MUSICAL GIANT...
THELONIOUS MONK: THE JAZZ COMPOSER AS VISIONARY
by Kofi Natambu
[This essay is an excerpt from a new book-in-progress by Kofi Natambu entitled A BRAND NEW BAG: How African Americans Revolutionized U.S. Culture and Changed the World, 1955-1975]
“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.”
“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.”
In 1936 Monk began playing on the road as a touring professional with an evangelist(!) from the Sanctified 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). 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.
FROM THE PANOPTICON REVIEW ARCHIVES
(Originally posted on October 24, 2009):
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Thelonious Monk: An American Original
Who Is Thelonious Sphere Monk?
Monday, October 5, 2009, 7:00 – 9:00 PM
Barnes and Noble
66th and Broadway
New York, NY
Thursday, October 8, 2009, 7:30
Book party, Discussion, and Jam session
The Brecht Forum
451 West Street, New York, NY 10014 (between Bank & Bethune Streets)
Phone: (212) 242-4201 – Email: brechtforum at brechtforum.org
Saturday, October 10, 2009, 6:00 – 8:00 PM
Politics and Prose Bookstore and Coffee House
5015 Connecticut Ave., NW
Tuesday, October 13, 2009, 7:30 PM
Conversation with Robin D. G. Kelley on Thelonious Monk
With Guest, pianist Randy Weston
Center for Jazz Studies, Columbia University
Dwyer Cultural Center, 258 St. Nicholas Ave. and 123rd St.
Thursday, October 15, 2009, 3:00 PM
Reading and book signing, “‘North of the Sunset’: Thelonious Monk’s L.A. Stories”
Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA
Los Angeles, CA
Free and open to the public
Tuesday, October 20, 2009, 7:00 PM
8818 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90069-2125
October 23, 2009, 7:00 PM
695 E Colorado Blvd
Pasadena, CA 91101
October 27, 1009, 7:00 PM
Eso Won Bookstore
4311 Degnan Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90008
October 29, 2009, 7:00 PM
City Lights Bookstore
261 Columbus Avenue at Broadway (North Beach)
San Francisco, California 94133
Tel (415) 362-8193
Return to Main Menu.
About The Author
Who Is Thelonious Sphere Monk?
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
Advance Praise for Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
—Geri Allen, pianist/composer, Associate Professor of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation, University Of Michigan
—Farah Jasmine Griffin, author of If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday
About The Author
FROM THE PANOPTICON REVIEW ARCHIVES
(Originally posted on January 2, 2010):
Saturday, January 2, 2010
Women Who Had a Major Influence on Thelonious Monk's Life and Art: Barbara Monk, Nellie Smith Monk, Alberta Simmons, and Mary Lou Williams
See what I said about "Genius and Recognition" in my previous post below about Monk, Baraka, and Robin Kelley? Well, that admonition goes DOUBLE here. So thank you, Thank you, THANK YOU Mrs. Barbara Monk, Mary Lou Williams, Alberta Simmons, and Nellie Smith Monk (the one Thelonious always "crepesculed" with) for being absolutely instrumental as well as essential in the formation and growth of one of the greatest and most important artists of the 20th century...
The Women Who Made Thelonious Monk
by Walter Ray Watson
National Public Radio--NPR
My story about Thelonious Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley ran on All Things Considered yesterday. But wait! There's much more to say: Kelley's new book, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original, takes considerable pains to acknowledge the support of women in the life of the musician.
First, there's his mother, Barbara Monk, who moved to New York City with Thelonious Monk Sr., and their three children: Thomas, the eldest; his sister Marion, and Thelonious Jr., the youngest child. The family moved to New York City to escape the farm life they had known in North Carolina. Thelonious Sr. eventually returned to Carolina, and Monk's mother and sister raised the family. Barbara Monk cleaned city offices to support her kids. When the youngest Monk began skipping classes during his senior year at Stuyvesant High School -- and eventually left altogether -- it was Barbara Monk who encouraged him to take that leap of faith.
A few years earlier, she had also supported Thelonious Jr.'s decision to follow a Christian evangelist, a woman whose name was never known to the family (and whose precise religious affiliation was just as hard to pin down), on a barnstorming tour of Midwestern towns for nearly two years.
As Kelley recounts in his book, Monk's travels through Kansas and other states is the most mysterious and undocumented time in Monk's life. But they were also perhaps his most fruitful years as an itinerant artist, learning how to call tunes on the spot, and how to respond to both musicians and audiences in the moment.
There was also a piano teacher early in Monk's development named Alberta Simmons. Kelley learned about Simmons' life from her daughter, Alberta Webb; Simmons, born in 1892, died long ago. Alberta Simmons was a performer, and assimilated the stride styles of Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Eubie Blake. She played the Clef Club, speakeasies in New York City, and even went out to Flushing, Queens for gigs. But as Webb told Kelley, "Being a woman, [Simmons] got sort of sidetracked trying to raise her children. Unfortunately things did not work out in later years."
Kelley's detective work found New York census records of Alberta Simmons at five year intervals. As time progressed, Simmons reported her career as piano teacher, and, in later years, "domestic worker." But before her earnings as a teacher dried up, Thelonious Monk learned stride piano from the woman. Monk was known to visit the home of James P. Johnson, and attend "cutting sessions" by other famed stride practitioners. But early on, Alberta Simmons showed him the way.
Kelley told me that Alberta Simmons never got the chance to make a recording, so there's no sample artifact of her playing style. Her daughter, Alberta Webb, told Kelley that she unfortunately had no photographs of her mother to share either -- and Webb died before the publication of Kelley's book. It's one of Kelley's regrets, he says. (Then again, you develop a mountain of regrets when you interview 300 people, read countless lost articles and spend 14 years on a mission that no one quite believes you would complete.) On the bright side, Kelley says that it's not much of a leap to think of Monk's 1956 solo recording of "Memories of You," the Andy Razaf/Eubie Blake song, as his tribute to Alberta Simmons. According to Kelley's research, she played this tune often, as if it were her own. Here's an excerpt (from The Unique Thelonious Monk, originally issued on Riverside Records):
Then, of course, there's his wife, Nellie Monk. She can't be underestimated for her role as partner, protector, career manager and supporter of Thelonious Monk. She gave her husband the space and time to develop his musical sense of space and time. She also cleaned private homes and worked as a seamstress in the lean years: The period when his music was dismissed or ignored by critics, thus making him a hard sell to the public, to club managers and to anyone considering him for studio recordings.
Last but not least, there's the great pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, who defended, promoted and befriended Monk. Reportedly, she first heard him as a young man in Kansas City while he was touring with that mysterious traveling evangelist. She later helped him get gigs in New York, and introduced him to a great deal of music. Kelley writes that despite Monk's Baptist roots and travels with evangelical revivals, he attended Catholic churches with Williams. Among the home recordings Kelley was exposed to by the Monk Estate were these pieces that Williams arranged and wrote out for Monk to try. Hear Monk practice "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm."
Takes One and Two:
Robin Kelley also sent me an unpublished excerpt he wrote about the music.
After ending his home recording of "Body and Soul" abruptly, Mr. Monk then shuffles some papers on the piano and announces, with the enthusiasm of a kid in a toy store, "Now let me see how we make out with this now. Mmmmm!" He then proceeds to tentatively work through an arrangement of "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" -- a Gus Kahn and Bronislau Kaper composition Mr. Monk never recorded nor included in his repertoire. The initial choruses sound a lot like Mary Lou Williams' 1946 trio recording (Classics Records 1050) of the song, which I confirmed when archivist Ann Kuebler helped me locate the arrangement (titled simply "Chillun") in Ms. Williams' papers at the Institute for Jazz Studies. It is likely that Mr. Monk had a copy of her arrangement from the 1940s since they exchanged quite a bit of music during the early days of bebop. In particular, Mr. Monk takes from the arrangement Ms. Williams' rephrasing of the melody, the ascending arpeggios in the third and fourth bar of the song's A section, and the key signature: A-flat ... By the second take, he begins to incorporate more of his own unique phrases and improvised lines, including a striding left hand and dissonant clusters in the piano's upper register. Perhaps as a tribute to Mary Lou Williams, his final six bar cadence incorporates the kind of "boogie woogie" left hand figures Ms. Williams often used. By the third take, "Chillun" is entirely his own. Opening rubato, almost ballad-like, Mr. Monk throws in an unusual bass line in bars 9-12 and shifts into stride piano, over which he plays several high register phrases over and over to see what they sound like. By the time he returns to the melody, Mrs. Nellie Monk adds her singing voice and Mr. Monk closes with a tag similar to what he plays at the end of Gershwin's "Nice Work if You Can Get It."
Also, Mary Lou recorded this [arrangement] on October 7, 1946 (three days before Monk's 29th birthday). Unique are her phrasing of the melody and, most importantly, the bass line, in bars 3 and 4 of the A section; those ascending arpeggios. Notice how he echoes her phrasing throughout, especially in early takes of the song.
Here's the first 'A' section of Mary Lou's version:
Now go back and listen to Monk's versions with this information: The context makes a huge difference.
As long as Monk's legacy still rings in our ears, the women who contributed to Monk's development as a child, student, artist and man are to be honored. (And then there's the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, but that's another story in itself.) Thanks to Robin Kelley for keeping their gifts to the music alive, if not unearthing them altogether.
7:45 PM ET | 12-30-2009 | permalink
Posted by Kofi Natambu at 2:13 AM
Labels: Alberta Simmons, Barbara Monk, Jazz history, Jazz piano, Mary Lou williams, Nellie Monk, NPR, Thelonious Monk, Walter Ray Watson
Documentary film: Thelonious Monk Straight, No Chaser, 1988
Directed by Charlotte Zwerin
Thelonious Monk was one of the true, undisputed innovators of jazz. His influence, both in playing and composition, altered all of us as musicians and even more fans of the art form. Straight, No Chaser primes itself as the definitive film documenting Monk’s life. With insight from family, friends, and collaborators such as John Coltrane, Teo Macero, Johnny Griffin, and more the picture the film paints is one of incredible talent and collaborative spirit. Early on Monk took notice from fellow jazz legends Fats Waller, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and more, which only furthered his vibe and energy. Check out the entire film below and comment with your thoughts!
Thelonious Monk Documentary -- 1/10:
Jazz Icons: Thelonious Monk- Live In '66 + Other Monk videos in Japan, Germany, France, Denmar, Holland, England, and the United States
A Monk’s Life: Thelonious Monk
A mystery man, to most of us, the Monk is widely considered one of the most innovative and creative musicians of the 20th century. Who was this man? Why the hat? Why the jacket? Why the beard? To give you a rough idea – Duke Ellington wrote, recorded, produced and released over 1,000 songs in his career. Monk composed around 70. But Monk is the next most frequently recorded jazz composer after Ellington. With 930 less songs, he has been as widely recorded as the biggest name of 20th century jazz. That’s the gist. But beyond the statistics, the man was one of flamboyance, energy, creativity, originality, and above all – style. His early work in shaping the bebop genre, his later work in changing conceptions of jazz performance and improvisation, and his crazy dance moves combined to create one of the most powerful people in jazz history. This is how it happened.
Monk was born in 1917 in North Carolina. His family relocated to Manhattan, where he began to play the piano around 1923. He was mostly a self-taught musician, although he sometimes snuck in on his sister’s lessons. His first performance experience was in gospel and church music, playing small and large church organs. But he eventually found interest (and work) in jazz, which was the thing in 1930s Manhattan. His practice and playing eventually landed him a job at a local nightclub, Minton’s Playhouse, as the resident pianist. Playing in the work hours was more of a chore for Monk – as the real music went on after hours. Monk participated in ‘cutting contests’ with other jazz solo artists. These were musical battles, basically improvisational competitions, ‘fought’ between contemporary pianists. They were meant to determine the mastery of a new musician on the scene, competing against regional masters.
These musical battles led to the formation of a new style of jazz – bebop. Developing from roots in stride piano, common at the time. The bebop that Monk was beginning to carve out was a common style with other leading artists, like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. This new genre was a result of the need to create innovative forms of playing to ‘survive’ in the Manhattan jazz scene. Monk knew this from the start, and his musical innovations ensured that he could play the survival-of-the-fittest game with supreme confidence. His improvisational style flourished with bebop, but he quickly grew away from it. His writing style and improvisation included very dissonant chord choices and scale use, sharp and unusual rhythms, abrupt silences, and odd heavily syncopated geometric melodies. These features were revolutionary in the 1940s and even more so when fully developed in the 60s.
After establishing himself on the Manhattan scene in the early 40s, he gained a reputation and began playing and performing studio recordings with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet. As things were picking up, in 1951 he became entangled in a narcotics case, which resulted in his New York City Cabaret Card removed – the card which allowed him to play alcoholic establishments in the city. With this gone, he lost his residency, and his audience, and his performances. He spent time in the mid-50s writing, practicing, and playing out-of-town gigs from time to time. During this intermission, he began meeting and producing records with other well-known jazz musicians, including saxophonist Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis. Davis, one of the most well respected jazz performers in the world, ran into problems with Monk because he found Monk’s playing simply too difficult to play over. Rumour has it that Davis asked Monk to sit out and stop accompanying, which caused extreme tension between the two that almost led to violence.
Ready to put his past troubles (and Manhattan) behind him, Monk visited Europe in 1954 where he performed and recorded in Paris. Although trouble didn’t leave him, as he was again caught up in narcotics difficulties over marijuana possession. Luckily a close friend took responsibility and he got off clean. He was still finding trouble, while trying to avoid it. Luckily for him, things were about to turn up.
Riverside Records was ready to take Monk on. He recorded with the label from 1955-1961. Although Monk arrived highly regarded, producers found his music too ‘difficult’ for mass consumption. He was coerced to produce several albums of covers (of the basic jazz standards) to spread his music to public audiences. By 1956, he began to produce his original music in ‘Brilliant Corners’, which was very complex (requiring Sonny Rollins, on the title track, to have to paste together separate tracks because the saxophone part was so difficult). But it was considered a success for Monk, and it propelled him to produce more originals and more albums. After receiving back his New York City Cabaret Card, he put himself back on the Manhattan circuit, where (revitalized with his original music), he established a place and an image for himself.
And his image was as unique as his playing style. He was well known for his eccentric hats, suits and sunglasses. He was one of the first who began the beret and sunglasses look that we are so familiar with in jazz cafés today. His hats ran the gamut from trendy berets to ridiculous fez hats. Monk’s manner matched his style – frequently he would leave the piano and just stand up to walk around or dance before sitting down again. These touches made him stand out in the jazz community as more than just another musician – he was a character. With musical talent to match. Monk continued to play in other jazz groups with John Coltrane and (yes, really) Miles Davis, before being signed to Columbia Records in 1962. He produced and released many live albums and studio recordings up until the mid 1970s, when he disappeared from the jazz scene. Many believe that he finally fell to mental illness that had haunted him his whole life – either manic depression or schizophrenia. He retired to a friend’s New Jersey home, where he lived until he died of a stroke in 1982.
What else can be said of such a jazz legend? Not much, I’m afraid. The only thing to do now is to listen to the music that made his life – the music that was Thelonious Monk. Below are links to recordings to some of his most famous songs. Get a taste for one of the 20th century’s best musicians. A Tribe article could hardly do him justice.
Blue Monk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmhP1RgbrrY&feature=related
‘Round Midnight: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMmeNsmQaFw&feature=related
Straight No Chaser: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIkmNNmAnAM&feature=related
Well You Needn’t: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOvKLvWuZjg