Personalities | Thelonious Monk | Fifties | Jazz & Blues

Thelonious Monk was one of the most original and idiosyncratic figures in jazz history. Almost from the start of his long career, the pianist and composer pursued a singular but relentlessly focused path through jazz, playing his own music in his own instantly identifiable way, with a seeming disregard for popular acceptance that was extreme even by jazz standards.

Thelonious Sphere Monk Jr. was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina on 10 October 1917, but lived in New York from the age of six. The Harlem stride pianists of the 1920s became a sublimated but palpable influence on his rhythmic style.

His idiosyncratic approach extended to every element of his music. His angular melodies, unconventional dissonant harmonies and oblique rhythmic patterns all bore his stamp, as did his touch at the keyboard (not to mention his penchant for using his elbow and forearm to crash out huge clusters of notes, or breaking into a little dance around the instrument).

A Unique Artistic Vision

Monk recycled his compositions endlessly in concert and on records, often in rather rigidly demarcated fashion. He was an introverted, eccentric figure in the colourful world of jazz, but he had a unique artistic vision and a single-minded determination to realize that vision. He was at the centre of the group of musicians who forged the framework for bebop at Minton’s Playhouse in the mid-1940s, but even there his highly individual style placed him a little to the side of the central flow of the music (Bud Powell, a friend of Monk’s, provided the more canonical example of the bebop pianist).

He worked with Coleman Hawkins, Lucky Millinder, Cootie Williams and Dizzy Gillespie in the mid-1940s, and began recording as a leader for Blue Note Records in 1947. His recordings for that label (until 1952), Prestige (1952–54) and Riverside (1954–60) comprise the bulk of his classic music. He signed to Columbia in 1960 and recorded in solo and big-band settings with the label – as well as in the familiar quartet format – but added only 11 new compositions in that time, preferring to rework his classic canon of the 1950s until his departure from the label, and start of total withdrawal, in 1969.

No Compromises Accepted

Monk’s music rarely diverged from the structures of the standard 12-bar and 32-bar forms that dominated the era, but they were recast in strange new harmonies and rhythms. He brooked no compromises with his music, and many musicians baulked at the discipline his music required, although others – John Coltrane, Clark Terry, Steve Lacy and Charlie Rouse among them – embraced its spiky demands. Many of his tunes have entered the jazz repertoire, including ‘’Round Midnight’, ‘Blue Monk’, ‘In Walked Bud’, ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’, ‘Misterioso’, ‘Straight No Chaser’, ‘Well You Needn’t’ and ‘Evidence’.

His increased profile led to his making a tour of Europe in 1961, and being featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1964. It had been a long time coming, but he went on...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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