Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


MONK, Thelonious

(Thelonious Sphere Monk, b Thellous Junior Monk, 10 October 1917, Rocky Mount NC; d 27 February 1982, NYC) Pianist, composer, leader. It was not uncommon for names to be spelled wrong on birth certificates and in census takings, especially among African-Americans. Thelonious was also his father's name, a Latinized spelling of St. Tillo, a Benedictine monk who was a missionary in 7th century France (he is called Hilonious in Germany). Our Thelonious also had an ancestor named Speer, and later adopted 'Sphere' as his middle name.

He moved to New York City as an infant; began on piano at eleven and occasionally accompanied his mother's singing in church. He was influenced by Herman Chittison and James P. Johnson among others; he played at rent parties, turned pro in 1939 and was a house pianist at Minton's, and also worked with Kenny Clarke, Lucky Millinder, and others.

With Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and a few others, Monk is often described as one of the great jazz composers, but was not really a composer in the sense that they were; he was among the young musicians hired by Coleman Hawkins in 1944 on one of the first bebop recording sessions, but was not really a bopper either: he was influential in the new music, but had to play what he wanted to play, and did not readily fit into groups or big bands where the pianist was supposed to support others. To use André Hodeir's classification, Monk was a theme-writer; but the thinking behind what he did was compositional: his themes were utterly unique, implying endless harmonic and structural possibilities. His piano technique was unorthodox and some thought he lacked skill, but he had all the technique he needed to be Monk. Johnny Griffin said he could play like Art Tatum if he wanted to, but added, 'He was never fighting with the keyboard; he played exactly what he wanted to play.' He could swing as well on one and three as others on two and four, and when he played a standard it became a Monk tune.

His own angular, idiosyncratic themes were so difficult to play properly that they frightened many musicians, to say nothing of the public; his method of unique harmonic and rhythmic displacement of accents was in line with what Jelly Roll Morton had done many years earlier, but people who listened to Monk had not heard Morton, and people who still loved Morton's music refused to listen to Monk, so they all remained unaware of the thread of the development of the art. Yet Monk always had a cult following and had no trouble hiring the best sidemen. He seems to have had most of his best ideas early on (though later tunes such as 'Brilliant Corners' carried on his unorthodox curiosity) and many of the tunes became jazz standards: 'Round Midnight', 'Epistrophy', 'Misterioso', 'Straight No Chaser', 'Blue Monk' (the first two recorded by the Cootie Williams band, 'Epistrophy' called 'Fly Right' in 1942 and not then released, while the band that recorded 'Round Midnight' in 1944 had young Bud Powell on piano). Today they are a challenge that any young jazz musician has to meet.
When Blue Note began recording what was then avant-garde music, Ike Quebec and others urged them to record Monk; he made six recording sessions for the label in 1947-52 with trios to sextets, returning in 1957 for two tracks on Sonny Rollins Volume 1. (The RVG editions on Blue Note in 2001, the 1947-52 recordings remastered by Rudy Van Gelder, are astonishingly good; the CDs called Genius of Modern Music Volumes 1 and 2 use the covers of the original 10-inch Blue Note LPs, and the delightful music has come up fresh as paint. The 39 tracks are arranged with the alternative takes at the end of each session, making the CDs more listenable for most people.) Monk recorded with Charlie Parker and Gillespie on Clef (Verve) in 1950, made seven sessions for Prestige 1952-4 with sidemen including Blakey, Rollins, Miles Davis, Ray Copeland, others (reissues on OJC from the Fantasy group). The sole recording session with Davis was on Christmas Eve 1954, and they did not get along: Davis, unable to cope with Monk's intensely personal time, ordered him not to comp behind his solos. Monk recorded piano solos in Paris in 1954, and four tracks as a member of a Gigi Gryce quartet '55 on Signal, later reissued on Savoy, with Blakey and Percy Heath (the tunes were Gryce's 'Nico's Tempo' and Monk's 'Brake's Sake', 'Gallop's Gallop' and 'Shuffle Boil', not revived again on records for several years). He made an album with Blakey's Jazz Messengers on Atlantic '58; otherwise he recorded exclusively for Riverside 1955-61.

Sales of his records had been so poor that Prestige sold his contract to Riverside for about $108. Nineteen Riverside dates raised his profile. They began with a trio with Clarke and Oscar Pettiford; there was a quartet date led by Clark Terry '58, also many piano solos, and the Riverside period ended with a live sextet date from San Francisco's Blackhawk '60 and quartet dates in '61, all with Charlie Rouse, a regular member of his group from then on. The Riverside material was reissued in various two-disc sets on Milestone during the LP era including Pure Monk '73 (compiling all the solos); then it was on OJC with the original sleeve artwork, including Monk's Music '57, a septet including Blakey, Copeland, Hawkins, Gryce, John Coltrane and bassist Wilbur Ware (b 8 September 1923, Chicago; d 9 September 1979: his own album was The Chicago Sound '67). Monk's Music begins with a short invocation, 'Abide With Me' played by horns only (written 1861 by William Henry Monk, no relation) and includes blowing sessions on 'Epistrophy' and 'Well, You Needn't', also 'Off Minor', 'Ruby, My Dear', 'Crepuscule With Nellie' (twilight with the beloved Mrs Monk, who d 25 June 2002 aged 80). 5 By Monk By 5 '59 is also superb, with excellent work by Thad Jones and others including Rouse.
His career in New York City had been hampered because he ran afoul of the 'cabaret card' law then in effect, and could not work in a place where liquor was served 1951-7; the famous gig at the Five Spot with John Coltrane in July 1957 was the first after its reinstatement. He lost the card again more briefly after an arrest in Delaware in October 1958 (Monk was beaten by police; his champion and defender Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter took the rap for a small amount of marijuana.) He was back at the Jazz Gallery in June 1960, five months after he had been cleared of charges. (The operation of the infamous cabaret card system, which discriminated against performers, was removed from the police department in early 1961, and abolished entirely in 1967.) 

Monk did not have a contract with a major label until 1962, and then Columbia did not value him properly: they allegedly tried to get him to record Beatle songs, but released excellent live recordings only after his death. He toured the world with the Giants of Jazz in 1971-2 (with Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, etc), suffered from ill health in the late 1970s, and was honoured at President Carter's White House Jazz Party in 1978.

He recorded with big bands with arrangements by Hall Overton, live at Town Hall in 1959 and at Lincoln Center in 1963: the concerts were triumphs, not simply arranged but carefully thought out by Monk and Overton. The Columbia studio albums were mostly quartet sets with Rouse, John Ore on bass (b 17 December 1933; d 22 August 2014) and Frankie Dunlop on drums (b 6 December, Buffalo NY; d 7 July 2014, Engelewood NJ), succeeded '64 by Butch Warren (b Edward Warren, 9 August 1939, Washington DC; d 5 October 2013, Silver Spring MD), then Larry Gales on bass (b 25 March 1936; d 12 September 1995), Ben Riley on drums (b 17 July 1933, Savannah GA; d 18 November 2017, West Islip NY): Monk's Dream, Criss-Cross, Monk and Straight, No Chaser (finally issued complete on CD '97), and Underground '62-7 all included one or two piano solos except the last, which included a vocal by Jon Hendricks on 'In Walked Bud'. Solo Monk '64 opened with 'Dinah': the affectionate, humorous spoof of a song from 1925 'bristles with Monkian melodic ideas and Monkian rhythmic delays' (Martin Williams's sleeve note). Monk's Blues '68 had a 15-piece band arranged and conducted by Oliver Nelson; two-LP live quartet sets included Tokyo Concerts, Live At The It Club and Live At The Jazz Workshop '63-4; the Town Hall big band concert was finally issued complete on a Riverside/OJC CD and the Lincoln Center concert on Columbia.

The Giants of Jazz tour was recorded live in London in 1971; the next day Monk made studio recordings solo and with a trio with Blakey and bassist Al McKibbon (b Alfred Benjamin McKibbon, 1 January 1919, Chicago; d 29 July 2005) for Black Lion, produced by Alan Bates; all this was issued complete for the first time in a limited edition four-disc The Complete Black Lion And Vogue Recordings Of Thelonious Monk '86 on Mosaic (with the '54 Paris tracks), and on Black Lion '96 (on three CDs excluding the '54 tracks but with two more alternative trio tracks). This great American artist was not recorded again in the last decade of his life. Various European tours have been bootlegged; a '67 broadcast from Rotterdam included the quartet, quintet with Terry, octet with Copeland, Phil Woods, Johnny Griffin and trombonist Jimmy Cleveland. Steve Lacy, who played with Monk in 1960 and at Lincoln Center, played Monk's music exclusively for some time; the group Sphere specialized in it. His son Thelonious Jr is a drummer. Lyrics have been written to Monk's tunes by Ben Sidran, Hendricks, Mike Ferro and others; Carmen McRae Sings Thelonious Monk '90 on BMG/Novus was a delight, 'Well You Needn't' becoming Ferro's 'It's Over Now'. That's The Way I Feel Now '84 on A&M was a two-disc tribute including some poppish silliness (the opening track spoiled by absurdly loud rock drumming, the antithesis of Monk's subtlety) but also work by Lacy, Griffin, Rouse, Bobby McFerrin, Carla Bley and others. Paul Motian's Monk In Motian is another of many albums of Monk tunes. 

John Coltrane played with Monk for only a few months, and the only recordings available showed him still coming to terms with the music, until the discovery of a Voice of America recording in excellent sound made in November 1957: Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane At Carnegie Hall on Blue Note, with Shadow Wilson on drums and Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass, was pure joy, the most exciting release of 2005.

For more on the Jazz Loft, where Monk and Overton worked together, see Overton's entry. Duke University's Jazz Loft Project has a website here, where you can hear a CDS Radio podcast called Digging Up Thelonious Monk's Southern Roots. Brilliant Corners, by Chris Sheridan, was the first useful biography, including a discography; Robin D.G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2009) was immediately one of the all-time great jazz biographies.