To tell the life of Thelonious Monk is to tell a mystery. He played with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins, and his compositions are the master works of jazz. From bebop to his own rhythmic, angular style of the late 50s and early 60s, he was a force of sophisticated sounds, movements, and melodies unmatched in the jazz world.
Growing up in NYC’s San Juan Hill neighborhood in the 1920s, Monk absorbed the sounds of the street and that street was jazz mixed with gospel. These sounds along with Tatum’s percussive style are immersed in Monk’s sound. Monk was a mostly self-taught pianist but he did end up studying music theory at Julliard.
“Sometimes it’s to your advantage for people to think you’re crazy”
The sound of Thelonious Monk really begins with Art Tatum. When one listens to the great pianist Tatum, one can also hear the percussive melodies that Monk would later develop on such masterpieces as Epistrophy.
In the 1940s, Monk began playing at the house pianist at Minton’s. Throughout the decade, Monk was in on the ground floor of the development of bebop. He would play and record with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Coleman Hawkins. Monk always claimed that “Be-bop wasn’t developed in any deliberate way.” As a composer, Monk did not build his works around chords and melodies but rather tones and rhythms. The dissonance or assonance of two notes created the landscapes for the melodies and for the solo.
”He hasn’t invented a new scheme of things,” Paul Bacon wrote in the jazz magazine The Record Changer in 1948, ”but he has, for years, looked with an unjaundiced eye at music and seen a little something else. He plays riffs that are older than Bunk Johnson but they don’t sound the same. His beat is familiar but he does something strange there, too. He can make a rhythm almost separate, so that what he does is inside or outside it. Monk is really making use of all the unused space around jazz, and he makes you feel that there are plenty of unopened doors.”
By the late 40s, Monk had already written several songs which have since become standards of jazz including Round Midnight.
“All musicians are subconsciously mathematicians.”
In the 1950s, Monk continued to work but not steadily. In the middle 50s, Monk returned. His compositions expressed himself as he only knew how. In the late 50s and early 60s, Monk wrote more masterpieces. Monk’s tenures on Riverside and Columbia Records during this time period were the most productive of his career. He would tour Europe several times and continue to reshape Jazz with his writing skills. Case in point…
Monk’s work with John Coltrane in the late 50s have recently been released to great success in the past five years. Live at Carnegie Hall captures Monk at his finest and Coltrane in the prime of his career.
Into the 1960s, Monk continued to play, write, and perform. His own behaviors began to garner more attention than his music at times. Between his hats, his dancing, his feet tapping, and his speech patterns, Monk became more of a personality at times.
Monk also became one of only three jazz greats to appear on the cover of time magazine. The rest of the sixties saw Monk’s compositions decline drastically. By the end of the decade, most of his albums were live works. In the 1970s, Monk faded away entirely. His own mind began to betray him. It has never been revealed what mental illness Monk had, but he would pass away in 1982 from a stroke.
In the 28 years since his death, no jazz artist has had an influence on jazz composers as much as Monk. To listen to Thelonious Monk is to not really listen to jazz. Monk’s sounds and rhythms are the sound of his daydreaming mind. His compositions seem to wander at times but they always end up in a magical place. Whether it is Brilliant Corners, Straight, No Chaser, Blue Monk or Epistrophy, the daydreaming qualities of Monk place him in the pantheon of great American composers.
Here is the Clint Eastwood documentary, Straight, No Chaser on the life and times of Monk.