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.”