Thelonious Monk Biography

Thelonious Sphere Monk, 11 October 1917, Rocky Mount, North Carolina, USA, d. 17 February 1982, Weehawken, New Jersey, USA. Monk’s family moved to New York when he was five years old. He started playing piano a year later, receiving formal tuition from the age of 11 onwards. At Stuyvesant High School he excelled at physics and maths, and also found time to play organ in church. In the late 30s he toured with a gospel group, then began playing in the clubs and became pianist in Kenny Clarke’s house band at Minton’s Playhouse between 1941 and 1942. He played with Lucky Millinder’s orchestra in 1942, the Coleman Hawkins Sextet between 1943 and 1945, the Dizzy Gillespie big band in 1946 and started leading his own outfits from 1947. It was Hawkins who provided him with his recording debut, and enthusiasts noted a fine solo on ‘Flyin’ Hawk’ (October 1944). However, it was the Blue Note Records sessions of 1947 (subsequently issued on album and CD as Genius Of Modern Music) that established him as a major figure.

With Art Blakey on drums, these recordings have operated as capsule lessons in music for subsequent generations of musicians. An infectious groove makes complex harmonic puzzles sound attractive, with Monk’s unique dissonances and rhythmic sense adding to their charm. They were actually a distillation of a decade’s work. ‘’Round Midnight’ immediately became a popular tune and others - ‘Ruby My Dear’, ‘Well You Needn’t’, ‘In Walked Bud’ - have become jazz standards since. In his book Bebop, Leonard Feather recognized Monk’s genius at composition, but claimed his playing lacked technique (a slight for which he later apologized). Monk certainly played with flat fingers (anathema to academy pianists), but his bare-bones style was the result of a modern sensibility rather than an inability to achieve the torrents of Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson. For Monk, the blues had enough romance without an influx of European romanticism, and enough emotion without the sometimes overheated blowing of bebop. His own improvisations are at once witty, terse and thought-provoking.

A trumped-up charge for possession of drugs deprived Monk of his New York performer’s licence in 1951, and a subsequent six-year ban from playing live in the city damaged his career. He played in Paris in June 1954 (recorded by Vogue Records). Riverside Records was supportive, and he found sympathetic musicians with whom to record - both under his own name and guesting with players such as Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Clark Terry. Plays Duke Ellington (1955) was a fascinating look at Duke Ellington’s compositions, with a nonpareil rhythm section in bass player Oscar Pettiford and drummer Clarke. Brilliant Corners, recorded in December 1956, showcased some dazzling new compositions and featured Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone. Regaining his work permit in 1957, Monk assembled a mighty quintet for a residency at the Five Spot club, including Shadow Wilson (drums), Wilbur Ware (bass) and John Coltrane (tenor). Coltrane always spoke of the fine education he received during his brief stay with the band - although the group was never recorded live, the studio albums that resulted (Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane, Monk’s Music) were classics. Monk repaid Coleman Hawkins’ earlier compliment, and featured the tenorman on these records: history and future shook hands over Monk’s keyboard. Previously considered too ‘way out’ for mass consumption, Monk’s career finally began to blossom.

In 1957, he recorded with Gerry Mulligan, which helped to expose him to a wider audience, and worked with classical composer Hall Overton to present his music orchestrally (At Town Hall, 1959). He toured Europe for the first time (1961) and also Japan (1964). He formed a stable quartet in the early 60s with Charlie Rouse on tenor, John Ore (later Butch Warren or Larry Gales) on bass and Frankie Dunlop (later Ben Riley) on drums. Critics tend to prefer his work with other saxophonists, such as Harold Land (1960) or Johnny Griffin (the late 50s), but overlook the fact that Rouse truly understood Monk’s tunes. He may not have been the greatest soloist, but his raw, angular tone fitted the compositions like a glove.

In the early 70s, Monk played with Pat Patrick (Sun Ra’s alto player), using son T.S. Monk on drums. Illness increasingly restricted his activity, but he toured with the Giants Of Jazz (1971-72) and presented a big band at the Newport Festival in 1974. Two albums recorded for the English Black Lion label in 1971 - Something In Blue and The Man I Love - presented him in a trio context with Al McKibbon on bass and Blakey on drums: these were stunning examples of the empathy between drummer and pianist - two of Monk’s best records. When he died from a stroke in 1982, leaving his wife (for whom he had written ‘Crepuscule With Nellie’) and son, he had not performed in public for six years. Monk’s influence, if anything, increased during the 80s. Buell Neidlinger formed a band, String Jazz, to play only Monk and Ellington tunes; Steve Lacy, who in the early 60s had spent a period playing exclusively Monk tunes, recorded two solo discs of his music; and tribute albums by Arthur Blythe (Light Blue, 1983), Anthony Braxton (Six Monk’s Compositions, 1987), Paul Motian (Monk In Motian, 1988) and Hal Wilner (That’s The Way I Feel Now, 1984, in which artists as diverse as the Fowler Brothers, John Zorn, Dr. John, Eugene Chadbourne, and Peter Frampton celebrated his tunes) prove that Monk’s compositions are still teaching artists new tricks.

His son, T.S. Monk, is a gifted drummer who continues a tradition by encouraging young musicians through membership of his band. One of the most brilliant and original performers in jazz, Thelonious Monk was also one of the century’s outstanding composers. ‘’Round Midnight’ is one of the most recorded jazz songs of all time. His unique ability to weld intricate, surprising harmonic shifts and rhythmic quirks into appealing, funky riffs means that something special happens when they are played: his compositions exact more incisive improvising than anybody else’s. In terms of jazz, that is the highest praise of all.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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