A mystery man, to most of us, the Monk is widely considered one of the most innovative and creative musicians of the 20th century. Who was this man? Why the hat? Why the jacket? Why the beard? To give you a rough idea – Duke Ellington wrote, recorded, produced and released over 1,000 songs in his career. Monk composed around 70. But Monk is the next most frequently recorded jazz composer after Ellington. With 930 less songs, he has been as widely recorded as the biggest name of 20th century jazz. That’s the gist. But beyond the statistics, the man was one of flamboyance, energy, creativity, originality, and above all – style. His early work in shaping the bebop genre, his later work in changing conceptions of jazz performance and improvisation, and his crazy dance moves combined to create one of the most powerful people in jazz history. This is how it happened.

Monk was born in 1917 in North Carolina. His family relocated to Manhattan, where he began to play the piano around 1923. He was mostly a self-taught musician, although he sometimes snuck in on his sister’s lessons. His first performance experience was in gospel and church music, playing small and large church organs. But he eventually found interest (and work) in jazz, which was the thing in 1930s Manhattan. His practice and playing eventually landed him a job at a local nightclub, Minton’s Playhouse, as the resident pianist. Playing in the work hours was more of a chore for Monk – as the real music went on after hours. Monk participated in ‘cutting contests’ with other jazz solo artists. These were musical battles, basically improvisational competitions, ‘fought’ between contemporary pianists. They were meant to determine the mastery of a new musician on the scene, competing against regional masters.

These musical battles led to the formation of a new style of jazz – bebop. Developing from roots in stride piano, common at the time. The bebop that Monk was beginning to carve out was a common style with other leading artists, like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. This new genre was a result of the need to create innovative forms of playing to ‘survive’ in the Manhattan jazz scene. Monk knew this from the start, and his musical innovations ensured that he could play the survival-of-the-fittest game with supreme confidence. His improvisational style flourished with bebop, but he quickly grew away from it. His writing style and improvisation included very dissonant chord choices and scale use, sharp and unusual rhythms, abrupt silences, and odd heavily syncopated geometric melodies. These features were revolutionary in the 1940s and even more so when fully developed in the 60s.

After establishing himself on the Manhattan scene in the early 40s, he gained a reputation and began playing and performing studio recordings with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet. As things were picking up, in 1951 he became entangled in a narcotics case, which resulted in his New York City Cabaret Card removed – the card which allowed him to play alcoholic establishments in the city. With this gone, he lost his residency, and his audience, and his performances. He spent time in the mid-50s writing, practicing, and playing out-of-town gigs from time to time. During this intermission, he began meeting and producing records with other well-known jazz musicians, including saxophonist Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis. Davis, one of the most well respected jazz performers in the world, ran into problems with Monk because he found Monk’s playing simply too difficult to play over. Rumour has it that Davis asked Monk to sit out and stop accompanying, which caused extreme tension between the two that almost led to violence.

Ready to put his past troubles (and Manhattan) behind him, Monk visited Europe in 1954 where he performed and recorded in Paris. Although trouble didn’t leave him, as he was again caught up in narcotics difficulties over marijuana possession. Luckily a close friend took responsibility and he got off clean. He was still finding trouble, while trying to avoid it. Luckily for him, things were about to turn up.

Riverside Records was ready to take Monk on. He recorded with the label from 1955-1961. Although Monk arrived highly regarded, producers found his music too ‘difficult’ for mass consumption. He was coerced to produce several albums of covers (of the basic jazz standards) to spread his music to public audiences. By 1956, he began to produce his original music in ‘Brilliant Corners’, which was very complex (requiring Sonny Rollins, on the title track, to have to paste together separate tracks because the saxophone part was so difficult). But it was considered a success for Monk, and it propelled him to produce more originals and more albums. After receiving back his New York City Cabaret Card, he put himself back on the Manhattan circuit, where (revitalized with his original music), he established a place and an image for himself.

And his image was as unique as his playing style. He was well known for his eccentric hats, suits and sunglasses. He was one of the first who began the beret and sunglasses look that we are so familiar with in jazz cafés today. His hats ran the gamut from trendy berets to ridiculous fez hats. Monk’s manner matched his style – frequently he would leave the piano and just stand up to walk around or dance before sitting down again. These touches made him stand out in the jazz community as more than just another musician – he was a character. With musical talent to match. Monk continued to play in other jazz groups with John Coltrane and (yes, really) Miles Davis, before being signed to Columbia Records in 1962. He produced and released many live albums and studio recordings up until the mid 1970s, when he disappeared from the jazz scene. Many believe that he finally fell to mental illness that had haunted him his whole life – either manic depression or schizophrenia. He retired to a friend’s New Jersey home, where he lived until he died of a stroke in 1982.

What else can be said of such a jazz legend? Not much, I’m afraid. The only thing to do now is to listen to the music that made his life – the music that was Thelonious Monk. Below are links to recordings to some of his most famous songs. Get a taste for one of the 20th century’s best musicians. A Tribe article could hardly do him justice.

Blue Monk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmhP1RgbrrY&feature=related

‘Round Midnight: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMmeNsmQaFw&feature=related

Straight No Chaser: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIkmNNmAnAM&feature=related

Well You Needn’t: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOvKLvWuZjg

Epistrophy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZ9El7k4mNo


Michael Melia