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The most important jazz musicians are the ones who are successful in creating their own original world of music with its own rules, logic, and surprises. Thelonious Monk, who was criticized by observers who failed to listen to his music on its own terms, suffered through a decade of neglect before he was suddenly acclaimed as a genius; his music had not changed one bit in the interim. In fact, one of the more remarkable aspects of Monk's music was that it was fully formed by 1947 and he saw no need to alter his playing or compositional style in the slightest during the next 25 years.
Thelonious Monk grew up in New York, started playing piano when he was around five, and had his first job touring as an accompanist to an evangelist. He was inspired by the Harlem stride pianists (James P. Johnson was a neighbor) and vestiges of that idiom can be heard in his later unaccompanied solos. However, when he was playing in the house band of Minton's Playhouse during 1940-1943, Monk was searching for his own individual style. Private recordings from the period find him sometimes resembling Teddy Wilson but starting to use more advanced rhythms and harmonies. He worked with Lucky Millinder a bit in 1942 and was with the Cootie Williams Orchestra briefly in 1944 (Williams recorded Monk's "Epistrophy" in 1942 and in 1944 was the first to record "'Round Midnight"), but it was when he became Coleman Hawkins' regular pianist that Monk was initially noticed. He cut a few titles with Hawkins (his recording debut) and, although some of Hawkins' fans complained about the eccentric pianist, the veteran tenor could sense the pianist's greatness.
The 1945-1954 period was very difficult for Thelonious Monk. Because he left a lot of space in his rhythmic solos and had an unusual technique, many people thought that he was an inferior pianist. His compositions were so advanced that the lazier bebop players (although not Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker) assumed that he was crazy. And Thelonious Monk's name, appearance (he liked funny hats), and personality (an occasionally uncommunicative introvert) helped to brand him as some kind of nut. Fortunately, Alfred Lion of Blue Note believed in him and recorded Monk extensively during 1947-1948 and 1951-1952. He also recorded for Prestige during 1952-1954, had a solo set for Vogue in 1954 during a visit to Paris, and appeared on a Verve date with Bird and Diz. But work was very sporadic during this era and Monk had to struggle to make ends meet.
His fortunes slowly began to improve. In 1955, he signed with Riverside and producer Orrin Keepnews persuaded him to record an album of Duke Ellington tunes and one of standards so his music would appear to be more accessible to the average jazz fan. In 1956 came the classic Brilliant Corners album, but it was the following year when the situation permanently changed. Monk was booked into the Five Spot for a long engagement and he used a quartet that featured tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. Finally, the critics and then the jazz public recognized Thelonious Monk's greatness during this important gig. The fact that he was unique was a disadvantage a few years earlier when all modern jazz pianists were expected to sound like Bud Powell (who was ironically a close friend), but by 1957 the jazz public was looking for a new approach. Suddenly, Monk was a celebrity and his status would not change for the remainder of his career. In 1958, his quartet featured the tenor of Johnny Griffin (who was even more compatible than Coltrane), in 1959 he appeared with an orchestra at Town Hall (with arrangements by Hall Overton), in 1962 he signed with Columbia and two years later was on the cover of Time. A second orchestra concert in 1963 was even better than the first and Monk toured constantly throughout the 1960s with his quartet which featured the reliable tenor of Charlie Rouse. He played with the Giants of Jazz during 1971-1972, but then in 1973 suddenly retired. Monk was suffering from mental illness and, other than a few special appearances during the mid-'70s, he lived the rest of his life in seclusion. After his death it seemed as if everyone was doing Thelonious Monk tributes. There were so many versions of "'Round Midnight" that it was practically a pop hit! But despite the posthumous acclaim and attempts by pianists ranging from Marcus Roberts to Tommy Flanagan to recreate his style, there was no replacement for the original.
Some of Thelonious Monk's songs became standards early on, most notably "'Round Midnight," "Straight No Chaser," "52nd Street Theme," and "Blue Monk." Many of his other compositions have by now been figured out by other jazz musicians and are occasionally performed including "Ruby My Dear," "Well You Needn't," "Off Minor," "In Walked Bud," "Misterioso," "Epistrophy," "I Mean You," "Four in One," "Criss Cross," "Ask Me Now," "Little Rootie Tootie," "Monk's Dream," "Bemsha Swing," "Think of One," "Friday the 13th," "Hackensack," "Nutty," "Brilliant Corners," "Crepuscule With Nellie" (written for his strong and supportive wife), "Evidence," and "Rhythm-a-Ning," Virtually all of Monk's recordings (for Blue Note, Prestige, Vogue, Riverside, Columbia, and Black Lion) have been reissued and among his sidemen through the years were Idrees Sulieman, Art Blakey, Milt Jackson, Lou Donaldson, Lucky Thompson, Max Roach, Julius Watkins, Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan, John Coltrane, Wilbur Ware, Shadow Wilson, Johnny Griffin, Donald Byrd, Phil Woods, Thad Jones, and Charlie Rouse. His son Thelonious Monk, Jr. (T.S. Monk) has helped keep the hard bop tradition alive with his quintet and has headed the Thelonious Monk Institute, whose yearly competitions succeed in publicizing talented young players.
Wikipedia:For the tribute album entitled Thelonious Sphere Monk, see Thelonious Sphere Monk: Dreaming of the Masters Series Vol. 2.
Thelonious Sphere Monk (October 10, 1917 – February 17, 1982) was an American jazz pianist and composer. Monk had a unique improvisational style and made numerous contributions to the standard jazz repertoire, including "'Round Midnight," "Blue Monk," "Ruby, My Dear," "In Walked Bud," and "Well, You Needn't". Monk is the second-most recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington, which is particularly remarkable as Ellington composed more than 1,000 pieces, whereas Monk wrote about 70.
His compositions and improvisations feature dissonances and angular melodic twists, and are consistent with Monk's unorthodox approach to the piano, which combined a highly percussive attack with abrupt, dramatic use of silences and hesitations.
He was renowned for his distinctive style in suits, hats, and sunglasses. He was also noted for an idiosyncratic habit observed at times during performances: while the other musicians in the band continued playing, he would stop, stand up from the keyboard, and dance for a few moments before returning to the piano.
Monk is one of five jazz musicians to have been featured on the cover of Time, after Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Duke Ellington, and before Wynton Marsalis.Yanow, Scott. "Thelonious Monk". AllMusic. Retrieved 2012-03-31. "Thelonious Monk (American musician) – Britannica Online Encyclopedia". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2012-03-31. Robin D.G. Kelley Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of American Original, London: JR Books, 2010, p.1. The source identifies the day of Monk's fortieth birthday in 1957. Giddins, Gary & Scott DeVeaux. Jazz (2009). New York: W.W. Norton & Co, ISBN 978-0-393-06861-0. Time cover Feb. 28, 1964. Retrieved 2010-12-22. Search of Time covers for "jazz". Retrieved 2010-12-22.
Thelonious Sphere Monk was born two years after his sister Marion on October 10, 1917, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the son of Thelonious and Barbara Monk. His badly written birth certificate misspelled his first name as "Thelious" or "Thelius". It also did not list his middle name, taken from his maternal grandfather, Sphere Batts. A brother, Thomas, was born in January 1920. In 1922, the family moved to 243 West 63rd Street, in Manhattan, New York City. Monk started playing the piano at the age of six. Although largely self-taught, he did study music theory, harmony, and arranging at the Juilliard School of Music. Monk attended Stuyvesant High School, but did not graduate. He toured with an evangelist in his teens, playing the church organ, and in his late teens he began to find work playing jazz.
In the early to mid-1940s, Monk was the house pianist at Minton's Playhouse, a Manhattan nightclub. Much of Monk's style was developed during his time at Minton's, when he participated in after-hours "cutting competitions" which featured many leading jazz soloists of the time. The Minton's scene was crucial in the formulation of bebop and it brought Monk into close contact with other leading exponents of the emerging idiom, including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, Charlie Parker and, later, Miles Davis. Monk is believed to be the pianist featured on recordings Jerry Newman made around 1941 at the club. Monk's style at this time was later described as "hard-swinging," with the addition of runs in the style of Art Tatum. Monk's stated influences included Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and other early stride pianists. In the documentary Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, it is stated that Monk lived in the same neighborhood in New York City as Johnson and knew him as a teenager.
Mary Lou Williams, who mentored Monk and his compatriots, spoke of Monk's rich inventiveness in this period, and how such invention was vital for musicians since at the time it was common for fellow musicians to incorporate overheard musical ideas into their own works without giving due credit. "So, the boppers worked out a music that was hard to steal. I'll say this for the 'leeches', though: they tried. I've seen them in Minton's busily writing on their shirt cuffs or scribbling on the tablecloth. And even our own guys, I'm afraid, did not give Monk the credit he had coming. Why, they even stole his idea of the beret and bop glasses."Solis, Gabriel (2007). Monk's Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making. University of California Press. pp. 19–20. ISBN 9780520940963. Mathieson, Kenny (2012). Giant Steps: Bebop And The Creators Of Modern Jazz, 1945–65. Canongate Books. p. 127. ISBN 9780857866172. Robin D.G. Kelley Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, London: JR Books, 2010, p13 The Thelonious Monk Reader, ed. van der Bliek, Oxford, 2001 Kelley, Robin D. G. (2009). Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. Free Press. p. 31. ISBN 978-0-684-83190-9. Retrieved November 23, 2013. "Mary Lou Williams interview, Melody Maker, 1954". Ratical.org. Retrieved 2012-03-31.
Early recordings (1944–1954)
In 1944 Monk made his first studio recordings with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet. Hawkins was one of the earliest established jazz musicians to promote Monk, and Monk later returned the favor by inviting Hawkins to join him on the 1957 session with John Coltrane. Monk made his first recordings as leader for Blue Note in 1947 (later anthologised on Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1) which showcased his talents as a composer of original melodies for improvisation. Monk married Nellie Smith the same year, and in 1949 the couple had a son, T. S. Monk, who is a jazz drummer. A daughter, Barbara (affectionately known as Boo-Boo), was born in 1953. Barbara died in 1984 from cancer.
In August 1951, New York City police searched a parked car occupied by Monk and friend Bud Powell. The police found narcotics in the car, presumed to have belonged to Powell. Monk refused to testify against his friend, so the police confiscated his New York City Cabaret Card. Without the all-important cabaret card he was unable to play in any New York venue where liquor was served, and this severely restricted his ability to perform for several crucial years. Monk spent most of the early and mid-1950s composing, recording, and performing at theaters and out-of-town gigs.
After his cycle of intermittent recording sessions for Blue Note during 1947–1952, he was under contract to Prestige Records for the following two years. With Prestige he cut several highly significant, but at the time under-recognized, albums, including collaborations with saxophonist Sonny Rollins and drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach. In 1954, Monk participated in a Christmas Eve session which produced most of the albums Bags' Groove and Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants by Miles Davis. Davis found Monk's idiosyncratic accompaniment style difficult to improvise over and asked him to lay out (not accompany), which almost brought them to blows. However, in Miles Davis' autobiography Miles, Davis claims that the anger and tension between Monk and himself never took place and that the claims of blows being exchanged were "rumors" and a "misunderstanding".
In 1954, Monk paid his first visit to Paris. As well as performing at concerts, he recorded a solo piano session for French radio (later issued as an album by Disques Vogue). Backstage, Mary Lou Williams introduced him to Baroness Pannonica "Nica" de Koenigswarter, a member of the Rothschild family and a patroness of several New York City jazz musicians. She would be a close friend for the rest of Monk's life, including taking responsibility for him when she and Monk were charged with marijuana possession.Miles: The Autobiography With Quincy Troupe, 80
Riverside Records (1955–1961)
By the time of his signing to Riverside, Monk was highly regarded by his peers and by some critics, but his records remained poor sellers, and his music was still regarded as too "difficult" for more mainstream acceptance. Indeed, with Monk's consent, Riverside had managed to buy out his previous Prestige contract for a mere $108.24. He willingly recorded two albums of jazz standards as a means of increasing his profile: Thelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington (1955) and The Unique Thelonious Monk (1956).
On the LP Brilliant Corners, recorded in late 1956, Monk mainly performed his own music. The complex title track, which featured tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, was so difficult to play that the final version had to be edited together from multiple takes. The album, however, was largely regarded as the first success for Monk; according to Orrin Keepnews, "It was the first that made a real splash."
After having his cabaret card restored, Monk relaunched his New York career with a landmark six-month residency at the Five Spot Cafe in New York beginning in June 1957, leading a quartet with John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Wilbur Ware on bass, and Shadow Wilson on drums. Unfortunately little of this group's music was documented due to contractual problems. Coltrane was signed to Prestige at the time, but Monk refused to return to his former label. One studio session by the quartet was made for Riverside, three tunes which were not released until 1961 by the subsidiary label Jazzland along with outtakes from a larger group recording with Coltrane and saxophone pioneer Coleman Hawkins, those results appearing in 1957 as the album Monk's Music. An amateur tape from the Five Spot (not the original residency, but a later September 1958 reunion with Coltrane sitting in for Johnny Griffin) was issued on Blue Note in 1993; and a recording of the quartet performing at a Carnegie Hall concert on November 29, previously "rumoured to exist," was recorded in high fidelity by Voice of America engineers, rediscovered in the collection of the Library of Congress in 2005, and released by Blue Note
"Crepuscule With Nellie", recorded in 1957, "was Monk's only, what's called through-composed composition, meaning that there is no improvising. It is Monk's concerto, if you will, and in some ways it speaks for itself. But he wrote it very, very carefully and very deliberately and really struggled to make it sound the way it sounds. [... I]t was his love song for Nellie," said biographer Robin Kelley in an interview.
The Five Spot residency ended Christmas 1957, Coltrane left to rejoin Miles Davis's group, and the band was effectively disbanded. Monk did not form another long-term band until June 1958, when he began a second residency at the Five Spot, again with a quartet, this time with Griffin (and later Charlie Rouse) on tenor, Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums.
On October 15, 1958, en route to a week-long engagement for the quartet at the Comedy Club in Baltimore, Maryland, Monk and de Koenigswarter were detained by police in Wilmington, Delaware. When Monk refused to answer the policemen's questions or cooperate with them, they beat him with a blackjack. Though the police were authorized to search the vehicle and found narcotics in suitcases held in the trunk of the Baroness's car, Judge Christie of the Delaware Superior Court ruled that the unlawful detention of the pair, and the beating of Monk, rendered the consent to the search void as given under duress.Chris Sheridan Brilliant Corners: A Bio-Discography, 2001, Wesport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, p.80 "Looking At The Life And Times Of Thelonious Monk", transcript of interview with Robin D.G. Kelley by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, NPR; conducted in 2009, replayed December 17, 2010. Retrieved 2010-12-22. State v. De Koenigswarter, 177 A.2d 344 (Del. Super. 1962).
Columbia Records (1962–1970)
After extended negotiations, Monk signed in 1962 to Columbia Records, one of the big four American record labels of the day along with RCA Victor, Capitol, and Decca. Monk's relationship with Riverside had soured over disagreements concerning royalty payments and had concluded with a brace of European live albums; he had not recorded a studio album since 5 by Monk by 5 in June 1959.
Working with producer Teo Macero on his debut for the label, the sessions in the first week of November had a stable line-up that had been with him for two years: tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse (who worked with Monk from 1959 to 1970), bassist John Ore, and drummer Frankie Dunlop. Monk's Dream, his earliest Columbia album, was released in 1963.
Columbia's resources allowed Monk to be promoted more heavily than earlier in his career. Monk's Dream would become the best-selling LP of his lifetime, and on February 28, 1964, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, being featured in the article "The Loneliest Monk". He continued to record studio albums, particularly Criss Cross, also from 1963, and Underground, from 1968. But by the Columbia years his compositional output was limited, and only his final Columbia studio record Underground featured a substantial number of new tunes, including his only waltz time piece, "Ugly Beauty".
As had been the case with Riverside, his period with Columbia Records contains many live albums, including Miles and Monk at Newport (1963), Live at the It Club and Live at the Jazz Workshop, both recorded in 1964, the latter not being released until 1982. After the departure of Ore and Dunlop, the remainder of the rhythm section in Monk's quartet during the bulk of his Columbia period was Larry Gales on bass and Ben Riley on drums, both of whom joined in 1964, Along with Rouse, they remained with Monk for over four years, his longest-serving band.
According to biographer Kelley, the 1964 Time appearance came because "Barry Farrell, who wrote the cover story, wanted to write about a jazz musician and almost by default Monk was chosen, because they thought Ray Charles and Miles Davis were too controversial. ... [Monk] wasn't so political. [...O]f course, I challenge that [in the biography]," said Kelley.Marmorstein, Gary. The Label The Story of Columbia Records. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 2007, pp. 314–315. Monk, Thelonious. Monk's Dream. Columbia reissue CK 63536, 2002, liner notes, p. 8 Gabbard, Krin (February 28, 1964). "The Loneliest Monk". Time (Time, Inc.) 83 (9). Retrieved 2007-11-12. Cite error: The named reference FA was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
Monk had disappeared from the scene by the mid-1970s, and made only a small number of appearances during the final decade of his life. His last studio recordings as a leader were made in November 1971 for the English Black Lion label, near the end of a worldwide tour with the Giants of Jazz, a group which included Dizzy Gillespie, Kai Winding, Sonny Stitt, Al McKibbon and Art Blakey. Bassist Al McKibbon, who had known Monk for over twenty years and played on his final tour in 1971, later said: "On that tour Monk said about two words. I mean literally maybe two words. He didn't say 'Good morning', 'Goodnight', 'What time?' Nothing. Why, I don't know. He sent word back after the tour was over that the reason he couldn't communicate or play was that Art Blakey and I were so ugly." A different side of Monk is revealed in Lewis Porter's biography, John Coltrane: His Life and Music; Coltrane states: "Monk is exactly the opposite of Miles [Davis]: he talks about music all the time, and he wants so much for you to understand that if, by chance, you ask him something, he'll spend hours if necessary to explain it to you." Art Blakey reports that Monk was excellent at both chess and checkers.
The documentary film Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988) attributes Monk's quirky behaviour to mental illness. In the film, Monk's son, T. S. Monk, says that his father sometimes did not recognize him, and he reports that Monk was hospitalized on several occasions due to an unspecified mental illness that worsened in the late 1960s. No reports or diagnoses were ever publicized, but Monk would often become excited for two or three days, pace for days after that, after which he would withdraw and stop speaking. Physicians recommended electroconvulsive therapy as a treatment option for Monk's illness, but his family would not allow it; antipsychotics and lithium were prescribed instead. Other theories abound: Leslie Gourse, author of the book Straight, No Chaser: The Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk (1997), reported that at least one of Monk's psychiatrists failed to find evidence of manic depression (bipolar disorder) or schizophrenia. Another physician maintains that Monk was misdiagnosed and prescribed drugs during his hospital stay that may have caused brain damage.
As his health declined, Monk's last six years were spent as a guest in the Weehawken, New Jersey home of his long-standing patron and friend, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who had also nursed Charlie Parker during his final illness. Monk did not play the piano during this time, even though one was present in his room, and he spoke to few visitors. He died of a stroke on February 17, 1982, and was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. In 1993, he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2006 he was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize citing "a body of distinguished and innovative musical composition that has had a significant and enduring impact on the evolution of jazz." During his lifetime, his style was not universally appreciated. Poet and jazz critic Philip Larkin once dismissed Monk as "the elephant on the keyboard".
The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz was established in 1986 by the Monk family and Maria Fisher. Its mission is to offer public school-based jazz education programs for young people around the globe, helping students develop imaginative thinking, creativity, curiosity, a positive self-image, and a respect for their own and others' cultural heritage. In addition to hosting an annual International Jazz Competition since 1987, the Institute also recently helped, through its partnership with UNESCO, designate April 30, 2012, as the first annual International Jazz Day.
Monk was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2009.Voce, Steve (August 1, 2005). "Obituary: Al McKibbon". The Independent (Findarticles.com). Retrieved 2007-11-12. Porter, Lewis (1998). John Coltrane: His Life and Music. University of Michigan Press. p. 109. ISBN 0-472-10161-7. "Art Blakey: Bu's Delights and Laments," by John B Litweiler in Downbeat magazine, March 25, 1976. Gabbard, Krin (Autumn 1999). "Evidence: Monk as Documentary Subject". Black Music Research Journal (Center for Black Music Research — Columbia College Chicago) 19 (2): 207–225. doi:10.2307/779343. JSTOR 779343. Spence, Sean A (October 24, 1998). "Thelonious Monk: His Life and Music". British Medical Journal (BMJ Publishing Group) 317 (7166): 1162A. doi:10.1136/bmj.317.7166.1162a. PMC 1114134. PMID 9784478. "GRAMMY.com — Lifetime Achievement Award". Past Recipients. National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 2007-11-12. "The 2006 Pulitzer Prize winners: Special Awards and Citations". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2007-11-12. Spencer, Charles (September 4, 2010) "In the steps of Larkin. The Spectator, London. "2009 Inductees". North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. Retrieved September 10, 2012.