Thelonious Monk – Daydreaming

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.


The Birth of Blues and Jazz – The Original Birth of Cool

WC Handy

After Christmas break is over and done, I will begin teaching my most favorite unit – the 1920s and 1930s. I call it “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” for it truly was. But out of this time period will come the foundations of all that we hold dear in our consumer culture and our beliefs in the role of government. But above all else will rise the birth of two forms of American music that are known the world over – blues and jazz.

On a lonely night in 1903, W.C. Handy, the African American leader of a dance orchestra, got stuck waiting for a train in the hamlet of Tutwiler, Mississippi. With hours to kill and nowhere else to go, Handy fell asleep on a hard wooden bench at the empty depot. When he awoke, a ragged black man was sitting next to him, singing about “goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog” and sliding a knife against the strings of a guitar. The musician repeated the line three times and answered with his instrument.

Handy later said, it was “the weirdest music I had ever heard.”

That music was, and is, the blues. The blues come from work songs, field chants, and southern spirituals. It was a rural music of hope, pain, suffering, and desire brought on first by slavery, then by sharecropping, and just being black in the South. Jazz, on the other hand, grew out of ragtime and New Orleans style music and slowly made its way up the Mississippi River and on to Chicago where the term Jazz was first coined in 1913.

Up until this time, it was hard to tell the difference between Jazz and Blues. If you listen to Bessie Smith’s rendition “Yellowdog Blues”, you will hear elements of both types of music.

One of the first great composers of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton, even called his music blues.

Things changed during World War One. In what is known as “The Great Migration”, African-Americans left the South to work in the factories in the North. Up to this point, Chicago, Memphis, St. Louis, and New Orleans were seen as Jazz towns. Soon, New York would be too. Add in Philadelphia, Detroit, and any major northern industrial metropolitan city, and the influx of African-Americans coming north to work in the factories changed the culture of music. For with them came the music of the fields (blues) and the music of the river (jazz).

It is in the late 20s that the split between the two forms of music becomes evident. The structure of the 12 bar blues becomes the dominant form of the genre while jazz ebbed and flowed in its structure, rhythms, and instrumentation. It is striking to sit and listen to the similarities of the two kinds of music in their infancy. For today, jazz is seen clearly as a more instrumental kind of music. But in the the 1920s, the lines were not so clear.

Take a look at Louis Armstrong’s “St James Infirmary Blues” to see and hear both.

Then take a listen to Bessie sing “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”.

To the untrained ear, it may seem quite similar, but to musicians, the chord structure, bass, and rhythms and different. And throughout the 20s and 30s, the two forms of music would continue to shift. By the early 30s, Blues reverted more to guitar, slide guitar, harmonica, piano, bass and drums, while jazz incorporated the brass. By the end of World War II, the two forms were completely different in their sound and structure. It is those sounds which formed the basis of our modern conceptions of blues and jazz. However, in the beginning, the lines and the sounds were blurred. But for me, it was the original birth of cool.