Thelonious Monk: 1917-1982
The man who altered the language of jazz
Thelonious Sphere Monk, the pianist and composer who died February 17th in Englewood Hospital in New Jersey after suffering a stroke, made music that defied time and seemed to defy gravity.
His music was a challenge with which each generation of modern jazz musicians has had to grapple: he played a particularly crucial role in the maturation of Bud Powell, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor, among others. And many rock musicians have long been ardent Monk fans, including NRBQ’s Terry Adams (who once assembled an album of unissued Monk performances for Columbia Records) and the J Geils Band.
Though Monk — who was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina on October 10th, 1917, and moved to Manhattan with his mother at age four — presided over the birth of bebop in the Forties, he himself was no bebopper. He gained experience playing behind a healing preacher when he was in his teens, and the influence of the Harlem stride style exemplified by Fats Waller and James P Johnson often cropped up in his playing. Neither was Monk a traditionalist. The compositions he began writing in the Forties moved in herky-jerky lurches and heaving wave-rhythms; their melodies and harmonies were as jagged as shards of exploded gun metal.
Though his classic and comparatively gentle “‘Round Midnight” was recorded by Cootie Williams in 1944, it wasn’t until 1947, when Monk began making records for the fledgling Blue Note label, that the world at large began to hear what he was up to. And what on earth was he up to? “Thelonious,” a tune from his very first Blue Note session, had verses fashioned from a single ingeniously hammered note, with three horns playing shifting dissonances behind it. He developed the one-note motif in his solo and then abruptly broke into some pure, old-fashioned Harlem oompah stride.
Monk’s work was too abstract for most musicians, let alone the general public, and he performed sporadically. Then, in 1951, he was busted when a friend’s car, in which he was sitting, was searched and found to contain narcotics. According to every musician’s and critic’s view of the incident, the dope belonged to Monk’s friend. But Monk refused to tell the cops, which cost him sixty days in jail — and six years of work, because of a New York law that forbade anyone with a criminal record from working in nightclubs.
So Monk simply stayed in his apartment on Manhattan’s West Sixty-third Street, venturing out occasionally to make some brilliant recordings for Prestige. He had never been much of a bon vivant anyway; his family, a very few close friends and the ordinary folks on his block were the only people he ever seemed to socialize with. New York Times jazz critic John S Wilson remembers witnessing an hour-long “conversation” between Monk and Duke Ellington — Monk’s part consisted entirely of barely audible grunts.
But he could be outgoing. At New York’s Village Vanguard one night, he began dancing (a favorite pastime) with the young son of a musician friend and became so exuberant he overturned a table.
When Monk returned to the clubs in 1957, he put together a quartet, with John Coltrane on tenor sax, for his debut at the Five Spot. The experience stamped Coltrane indelibly with Monk’s rigorously logical, utterly original slant on rhythm and harmony.
In a sense, though, it still wasn’t Monk’s time. A few exceptional pianists played his tunes and incorporated traces of his pungency — Bud Powell, of course, and Randy Weston and Elmo Hope. But while the most adept hornmen could navigate the treacherous rapids of his compositions when he was at the keyboard, jabbing and prodding them on, his skewed angles and diamond-hard minimalism still hadn’t worked their way into the mainstream of jazz language.
Miles Davis and John Coltrane recorded a lovely and popular rendition of “‘Round Midnight” in 1955, and a few adventuresome souls were playing a handful of his less “difficult” tunes — “Epistrophy,” “Straight, No Chaser,” “Bemsha Swing” and the heartfelt ballad “Ruby, My Dear.” But nobody, absolutely nobody, cared to tackle, say, “Nutty” (a pummeling line that sounds like an early template for Coltrane’s playing in his last years), or “Four in One” (a kind of musical equivalent to an optical illusion), or the diabolical, logically illogical “Played Twice.”
Finally, in the early Sixties, a few major musicians, such as Eric Dolphy and Cecil Taylor, developed personal languages that incorporated some of Monk’s angularity and the watch-me-now excitement of his rhythmic juggling acts. Steve Lacy, a soprano saxophonist who played in a couple of Monk’s bands, put together an early-Sixties quartet that played nothing but Monk, and beginning in 1959, Monk had a regular band, with the dependable and frequently ingenious Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone.
Monk’s health began to fail him in the early Seventies, and he played less frequently. His last concert appearance was at Carnegie Hall in 1976. During his last years, he and his wife, Nellie, reportedly lived on the New Jersey estate of the Baroness Pannonica (“Nica”) de Koenigwharter, the longtime patroness of major jazz musicians, in whose New York apartment Charlie Parker died.
In 1981, some of the foremost interpreters of Monk’s music — Rouse, Lacy, the pianists Barry Harris, Muhal Richard Abrams and Anthony Davis, plus others — presented two concerts with an all-Monk repertoire. And now that jazz seems to be entering a period of classicism, with some of the most adventurous musicians also devoting themselves to reinterpreting the tradition, Monk’s time may have come at last. If so, at least his wife of many years and his children, Thelonious Jr and Barbara (members of the funk band TS Monk), are here to appreciate it.
It’s difficult to say whether Monk was simply far ahead of his time or somehow operated outside time altogether.
“He wrote the way he thought, and he presented it to people whether they liked it or not,” said Charlie Rouse, who played with Monk for eleven years — longer than any other musician. “I doubt that people are going to realize until years from now how great a contribution he made to America.”
Be-Bop? True Be-Boppers can stand no other kind of Jazz! (1949)
By George Tucker — Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York) January 30, 1949
The spark that ignited the bebop school of jazz music is a lonely and rarely seen pianist who lives in the San Juan Hill section of New York — a Negro tenement neighborhood in which all the dime novel plots you ever saw about the joys and sorrows of jazz musicians are continually going on.
This pianist’s name is Thelonious Sphere Monk. Not for one minute does he consider himself eccentric, but:
He wears a thin and scraggly goatee because he hates razors. He wears blue berets because he hates rats. He is partial to green knit neckties, and he wears gorgeous spectacles of gold and silver whose ear-hooks are a half-inch wide.
Despite a history that is as mixed and varied as a mythical Balkan country with a dozen claimants to the throne, jazz historians and critics are Pretty well agreed that Thelonious is the true originator of be-bop.
This form of music is an off-shoot of swing with twitching rhythms and unmelodic harmonies which began to make itself felt 10 years ago and has grown into a recognizable movement only in the last two years.
Orrin Keepnews, a current jazz writer, credits Monk with being “one of the very first to play this style.”
Monk says flatly he is the originator of the school. Such bebop greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and others say they gathered at Monk’s feet 10 years ago to “hear the new sounds” as he worked out the chords in after-hour sessions in Minton’s Playhouse in West Harlem.
They found Monk a man with “great musical imagination,” whose piano has been likened to the surrealism of Dali. In the little 7- by 8- foot room where Monk broods and culls his mystical rhythms there is a photograph inscribed, To Thelonious, my first and only inspiration — your boy Dizzy.” Gillespie is a talented trumpeter whose band is billed “Ring of Be-Bop.”
Technically, Be-Bop is characterized by the accenting of passing notes, especially flatted fifths and ninths. It is a dissonant and staccato splash, played at breakneck speed. As boogie-woogie went back to Bach, be-bop must have some kind of kinship with Stravinsky, for nearly all be-boppers are Stravinsky fans.
Aside from occasional professional appearances and in record cutting sessions at Blue Note Records, Thelonious is rarely seen.
He was born in the same small shabby apartment on San Juan Hill where he lives today with his mother.
So peculiar in habit is this brooding musician he has been known to refuse jobs which were sorely needed, preferring to remain in the little room which some call the inner sanctum of be-bop. Here the initiate gather from time to time to hear him play. On occasion § they bring food.
This room is lighted by a single dim bulb. In addition to the scarred piano there is a single couch and a chair. Plastered to the ceiling is a photograph of Billie Holiday, Negro night club singer.
“When Thelonious closes his eyes and leans back,” says a friend, Billie smiles down on him.”
Though Thelonious at 30 is heavy with inspiration, he doesn’t work much at commercializing his wares — a circumstance that makes his mother unhappy.
‘Thelonious lacks push,” she has said to friends.
His behavior at the piano is similar to his life — he broods and composes for two days and nights without pause. He is as likely to eat four or five meals in a few hours and sleep for two days.
“I get my rest,” says Thelonious.
There is seldom a casual acceptance of be-bop. It is all the way, or not at all. Some critics refer to it as evidence of a neurotic world.
But its communicants can tolerate no other. To hear straight swing or jazz causes them acute physical distress. The New Yorker Magazine wrote recently:
“Upon hearing the solos of Bunk Johnson, Sidney Bechet, or even Louis Armstrong, regarded by their admirers somewhat as the Cathedral of Chartres is by medievalists, the be-boppers shudder’ convulsively, as if someone were rasping a fingernail down a blackboard… ‘How can they play that square stuff,’ they ask?”
Thelonious plays only his own compositions. Among his newest numbers are “Off Minor’ and “Well, You Needn’t.” A famous Monk number is “Epistrophy” which he identifies as “a reversion from the abnormal to the normal.”
Women attempt to ambush him from time to time and plot to share his idle moments. One girl who lived in the same apartment building came every day to clean and wash his dishes. His friends say she idolized him, placing cigarettes in his mouth and lighting them, but he rarely spoke to her.
“Women are a heckle,” Thelonious says, speaking for himself. “I don’t want to be tied down to anything but music.”
High priest in temples of Jazz (1966)
By Tom Stites — St. Louis Post Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) December 2, 1966
Pianist-composer Thelonious Monk has many quirks; talks only when he has something to say.
Thelonious Monk poured a disposable coffee cup full to the top with bourbon and another full of Coke, on the rocks, as a chaser. He managed one sip before the young man had him buttonholed.
“You sounded much better in person tonight than you do on records,” the young man began. ‘‘Why?”
“Unnnhhhh,” said Monk, who had just arrived at a party after a concert his quartet gave as part of the Washington University Performing Arts series.
Monk’s mouth, which is surrounded by a graying goatee, almost always hangs open, but he seldom says much. The young man was lucky to get the response he did.
For an open mouth and an unwillingness to talk are two of the many quirks of Thelonious Monk, one of the best- known pianists and composers of modern jazz. Monk’s music fs unusual, but compared with him, it is “Chopsticks.”
As the young man’s questions continued, Monk became even less eager to answer.
But the questioner persisted. He said, ‘I mean, do you think the crowd makes a difference in your performance?”’
‘We always sound better in person,” Monk managed, finally, after a pause.
When Monk does talk, the sentences are concise, and the words range from blunt to oblique, like the chords he plays on the piano. And sometimes his message is like being slugged with a forearm, like the crash he produces when he sometimes uses his big forearm to strike a row of keys simultaneously.
The party was In a student’s apartment above a bicycle shop on Delmar boulevard. Monk was in the kitchen, where most of the people were, and was moving around in a little shuffle, as he always does, even on the bandstand. He looks as if he hates to sit down to play. It’s another of his little quirks.
Eyes had been following Monk’s hat as he danced around. He wears hats, winter and summer — not only outdoors to protect his head, but in concert halls and night clubs when he plays the piano, and at parties and when he eats.
‘Is that your favorite hat?’ another young man asked. It was a good question, because Monk owns quite an assortment: fezzes, baseball caps, derbies, berets, fedoras, skull-caps and conical models worn by Chinese coolies.
Before he could answer, someone else asked what the hat was made of.
He shuffled slowly around in a little circle. ‘‘Sealskin,’’ he said, after pausing. It had a narrow brim and was light tan, furry, and had brown spots.
A girl with long hair said, almost sarcastically, that she didn’t know that seals had speckles.
“Well, you’re looking at it,” Monk said, with a defiant grin. He shuffled around, waiting for the next question, looking unhappy.
It came, and he considered it an insult, an affront to his hat, which he later said had cost him more than $45 in Montreal. He shuffled over to the youth who had asked the question.
“He’s trying to make fun of my hat,” Monk said to the crowd. “Isn’t that ridiculous?” He began criticizing the youth’s shoes, which were slightly battered.
Then he pointed to a beatnik type who was wearing blue jeans, battered loafers, a dark green button-down collar shirt, a mismatched tie and a rumpled sports jacket.
“Look at him!’? Monk said. ‘‘Look at him!’ He turned to the youth. ‘Get out there in the light where people can see you.” The youth timidly stepped to the middle of the room.
“You go to the university?” Monk demanded. ‘I thought to go to the university you had to be smart. Dungarees! Why you go out in public like that?”
For almost 20 years, Monk had managed to be dressed better than the youth he had just hit with the oral forearm, even though he worked infrequently and had little money.
He worked infrequently because he wanted to play the piano the way he liked, which was not the world’s taste then. He believed in looking presentable as fervently as he did in his music. He still looked presentable.
Below the insulted hat, Monk was wearing an elegant great-coat with fur lining, collar and lapels, Underneath was a brown, one-button suit with a double vent and cuffless trousers. His loafers were made of pebbly leather and his shirt was white with a spread collar, from which hung a knit tie. He was the picture of his music: fashionable and in good taste, but unusual because of the hat.
In the spare years of few jobs, Monk seldom strayed far from his headquarters, a Harlem flat with a grand piano in the kitchen. He had grown up there, and when he married, his wife had moved in with him and his mother, a strict woman whom Monk revered. He still lives there. He likes the neighborhood.
Most of his time was spent composing new tunes and waiting for the world to get ready for his music.
In the 1940s, he joined the house band at Minton’s, a bar in New York, and it was there that the seed of his fame was planted.
For it was at Minton’s that bop was born. No one is sure who started it, Monk or Charlie (Bird) Parker or Dizzy Gillespie, but Monk was presiding at the piano.
The years passed, and bop musicians with more conventional personalities and styles became famous. In the late 50s, after a long wait, Monk’s name began to seep out to people who were not hard-core jazz lovers.
“Round Midnight,” which has become Monk’s best-known tune, was recorded by June Christie and other jazz artists, and later by sultry Julie London as the title tune of one of her albums.
As Monk’s reputation grew, more and more people, even those with unprepared ears, found that his music contained prettiness, unlike many of his contemporaries. They also found wit, a rare quality in modern jazz.
Back in the kitchen, Monk was still shuffling around, working on the same drink. He still had not removed his greatcoat. He had settled down, and the wit in his music was showing in his conversation.
“They call me the high priest,” he said, and looked around. His tone of voice indicated that he did not take the title seriously.
He lifted the cup of bourbon and took a sip.
“Well, I’m working on getting rich,” he said. The crowd was amused, and he was pleased.
“But that priest bit will turn you around.”
Later he said that when he was a teen-ager he had traveled all over the Southwest with a faith healer. He began tapping his foot and swinging his arm.
“Bah, da, da-da-da-da-dah, dah,’ he sang, to the tune of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
“That was our theme song.
“I was in church every day for two years,” he said, suddenly serious. “Can any of you say that?”’ No one could.
Efforts to change the subject, to ask Monk about his life, were fruitless. Monk set the subject, and changed it when he pleased.
He told about Kansas City, where the evangelistic troupe broke up in the 1930s. He had played the piano in a few spots there, and those were the days of Count Basie in Kansas City, when it was a jazz breeding ground.
But his favorite topic was clothes. He took off the great- coat to let another guest try it on. It weighed about 10 pounds.
“This here is the bestest stuff there is,”’ he said of his suit. So was the coat, he said, putting it back on. He said his wife had paid $125 for it somewhere in Scandinavia.
“It would have cost $400 in the States,” he said, “if they imported anything as good as this.”
That was the most definite information Monk offered all night, and to get information from him, he must offer it. To talk with Monk is to listen to him.
After the party someone said it was unusual that Monk had gone to the party. He didn’t know any of the people, and the first he had heard about it was just before the concert began. And he had talked. Others have not been so lucky.
A night club owner in Chicago heard Monk speak only one sentence when he played an engagement there. When he was the subject of a Time magazine cover story a couple of years ago, it took the reporter several months to get Monk to say enough to make a story.
Understandably, much more has been written about Monk’s music than about him. He has been called the first major jazz composer since Duke Ellington. He has won the Downbeat mag: zine poll as best jazz pianist. His chord progressions are studied at Juilliard School of Music in New York.
But not all critics agree. One accused him of pushing modern American music to the brink of atonality. For years, he had difficulty finding sidemen who could, or would, play his style.
Yet there is support at the grassroots.
“We all dig Monk, secretly,” said Adolph Roulette, a veteran Kansas City jazz drummer. “Some of us poor-mouth him but down deep we all know that he’s so far out that we’re all trying to find him.”
Far out? Well, no one has ever accused Monk of being a square.
But consider his middle name: Sphere.
How could he be?