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Thelonius Monk: Musical Genius

Jazz music is commonly thought of as naturally arising from the plantations of the South as black people gained their freedom and turned their sorrowful songs into celebration. Even then, they knew something about music that science is just now discovering – it has healing properties that can surpass other forms of medication. “You must feel the music as well as hear it. You will experience the best healing results when you open up to listen not just with your physical ears, but when you start to feel the vibration of the music with your whole body and spirit” (Cardinal 2006). However, this isn’t exactly how jazz got its start. It is true that jazz came into being as a musical genre around the beginning of the 20th century, around the time that former slaves were beginning to find a voice of their own within the European-cultured cities of the South. As black musicians began incorporating the musical instruments of the Europeans into their music, they began discovering all kinds of new sounds and combinations that had a distinct means of communicating all its own. Bringing jazz to the mainstream public, though, would require more than a few groups of Southern black people getting together with some jumping music. One artist who truly understood the art of allowing the music to be felt as well as heard was Thelonius Monk who is today recognized as one of the “giants of American music” (Cook & Morton, 2008: 1020).

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Thelonius Monk was named after his father when he was born on October 10, 1917 in a place called Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He added his middle name, Sphere, later because he didn’t want people to think he was ‘square’ (Who is Thelonius Monk?). The family would eventually consist of father Thelonius, mother Barbara, older sister Marion and younger brother Thomas (Sheridan, 2001). When he was five years old, the family moved to New York City and settled in Manhattan where Monk soon began playing the piano. Although he had some lessons and often listened in when his sister was engaged in her piano lessons, he was essentially self-taught and spent as much of his time as he could playing the piano, often at the expense of more formal schooling. While he attended Stuyvesant High School, he never graduated, preferring instead to follow his passion for the jazz music he’d begun playing. He got himself on his feet by touring with an evangelist for a while, working the church organ, but it wasn’t long before he found work as a jazz player (Sheridan, 2001). He worked for several years as the house pianist at the famous Minton’s Playhouse, slowly increasing his recordings until he finally got a contract of his own with Blue Note in 1947.

Minton’s Playhouse was started in the dining room of the Hotel Cecil by retired saxophone player Henry Minton (Goelet, 2002). In an effort to ensure his fellow musicians felt at home at the new club, Minton hired Teddy Hill to manage the place. Hill’s band included many stars of the swing era, some of which were known as nonconformists. Of this first house band, drummer Kenny Clarke, trumpeter Joe Guy and pianist Thelonious Monk stood out as innovators of the new music and contributed to the club’s popularity among other jazz musicians. Clarke is attributed with the technique known as ‘dropping bombs’, “a repertoire of accents on the snare and bass drums and tom-toms” (Goelet, 2002). The timekeeping function of the drums had already been moved to the high-hat cymbals by Jo Jones, but Clarke moved it again to the large cymbal. Joe Guy had a “penchant for ‘battling’ with other trumpeters that made him the perfect jam-session host” (Goelet, 2002). Monk became known for having a “fine ear and a completely open mind” (Goelet, 2002). According to Amiri Baraka (2003), Monk’s contributions to the popularity of Minton’s included his bold harmonies that often stimulated his fellow musicians.

This house band with a penchant for musical exploration encouraged other musicians to stop by whenever they could to sit in to explore their musical ideas. “Even before the ‘bop’ sessions got under way, musicians who were working up the street at the Apollo would come by after their last show, or even between shows, and sit in with whoever was on the stand” (Baraka, 2003). Since Monday nights were usually the musicians’ night off, these became the most popular night for talents of all calibers to join in on these open sessions. “For years, at the start of every workweek, jazz musicians from around the city would converge on Minton’s in what Ralph Ellison called ‘a continuing symposium of jazz’” (Feuer, 2005). Musicians that dropped in to play as often as they could included such big-name stars as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. It was through these sessions that jazz was given birth as musicians left the strict rules of the directors and the dance floor in order to explore new musical expressions that focused on emotion, energy, harmony and rhythm.

It was at Minton’s that Monk fully developed into his own. In the smaller setting of the clubs, musicians such as Monk found the freedom to express their creativity in a way that gave birth to the new form of music. “It’s where bebop was born and took off. The polished acts all went downtown, but the experiments took place here” (Claire Haaga, president of Housing and Services Inc. cited in Feuer, 2005). Those who listened to him and would know described his early style as having a strong influence of Art Tatum-like runs and a ‘hard-swinging’ approach. Monk himself indicated his greatest influences were Duke Ellington and James P. Johnson (Sheridan, 2001). While it is true Monk developed his style here as he participated in so-called ‘cutting competitions’ in which the musicians would battle it out on their respective instruments. Many historians tend to present the club as if it were the Academy of Jazz in the 1940s because of the effect this had on Monk and many other musicians of the era, but Monk would be the first to disagree with this viewpoint. “It’s true modern jazz probably began to get popular there [Minton’s], but some of these histories and articles put what happened over the course of ten years into one year. They put people all together in one time in one place. I’ve seen practically everybody at Minton’s, but they were just playing. They weren’t giving lectures” (Thelonious Monk cited in Baraka, 2003). It was during these years that Monk was involved with the bebop style that he would later be credited with founding.

Although it and Monk came out of the swing tradition, bebop is different from swing in a number of ways. It is characterized by asymmetrical phrasing, fast tempos, expanded rhythm sections in the drums that extended beyond the primary role of time-keeper and the inclusion of intricate melodies that were often improvised upon. It generally had a choppy, fragmented sound that seemed to convey a sense of nervous energy to new listeners, but that introduced an exciting revolution to fans of jazz music and the musicians who played it. Swing was often orchestrated and highly organized, but bebop broke all the rules, typically introducing a theme or main melody at the beginning, allowing for almost all improvisation by the various instruments in the band in the middle and returning to the main theme in the end. According to Tanner (1964), the improvisational pieces worked because they were based upon the primary chords used in the main melody, providing one of the few links holding the piece together. The other link was the underlying harmonies played by the rhythm sections. Monk’s inventiveness in this area of music was commented on by Mary Lou Williams in her columns. According to her, one of the reasons why bebop relied so heavily on improvisation was because it was almost impossible for the music to be duplicated by others without giving proper credit to the original composer. “The boppers worked out a music that was hard to steal. I’ll say this for the leeches, though: they tried. I’ve seen them in Minton’s busily writing on their shirt cuffs or scribbling on the tablecloth” (Williams, 1954). Monk described it somewhat differently, as if he just couldn’t bring himself to play the same thing twice. “Everything I play is different – different melody, different harmony, different structure” (cited in Paul, 2007). While many were able to learn the technique, Monk proved himself such a master that he might as well have been giving music lectures from the stage.

The next few years would prove a challenging roller coaster ride of success and disappointment for Monk. His earliest confirmed studio recordings were made in 1944 with Coleman Hawkins, who actively sought to gain Monk the recognition he deserved for his innovation and improvisation. The year 1947 was a good year for the young musician. Just on the verge of turning 30, Monk began recording with Blue Note and he also married his sweetheart, Nellie Smith, who would become his greatest supporter throughout his life (Kelley). He was deeply involved in the exciting musical scene at Minton’s, which had a reputation for being the place for a jazz musician to go if they were going to make it anywhere and he was playing with some of the greatest names of the day – Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, Charlie Parker and, eventually, Miles Davis (Sheridan, 2001). He was also setting trends not only in music but in fashion, as was mentioned by Mary Lou Williams, “even our own guys, I’m afraid, did not give Monk the credit he had coming. Why, they even stole his idea of the beret and bop glasses” (Williams, 1954). Within two years, the successful young couple had their first child, a son they called T.S. Monk, and must have felt the world was fully open to them. This son would eventually grow up to become a successful jazz drummer, following in his father’s footsteps in all the best ways. Things would not be so lovely for his younger sister, though.

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The 1950s did not start on such a positive note for the musician however. Monk had fulfilled his contract with Blue Note in 1951, which was a shaky year for the artist. In August of that year, Monk was stopped by police as he sat in a parked car with one of his friends, Bud Powell. The police conducted a search of the car and discovered narcotics which reportedly belonged to Powell, but Monk would not testify against his friend and his New York City Cabaret Card was revoked as a result (Sheridan, 2001). This meant that he could not play in clubs that served alcohol, which severely stunted his ability to perform and promote himself. At the same time, he was viewed by many other jazz artists, diligently attempting to focus attention on the serious legitimacy of their music, to be too irreverent in his presentation style. “He would dance at the piano, wear beautifully odd hats, and when he spoke to people he didn’t much like, he tended to be evasive, or short, if he answered at all. None of this helped at first, and Monk spent the years 1947 through 1955 under a virtual blackout, rarely performing and recording, known unto only a few of New York’s hardcore beboppers” (Deceptively Simple). Fortunately, Monk was able to gain a new contract with Prestige Records in 1952 so he continued playing in theaters and other venues as well as touring. As a result of this relationship, he was able to make his first Parisian tour and began a lifelong friendship with the wealthy Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter, who was patron to many American jazz greats and would play a significant role in Monk’s life (Sheridan, 2001). Monk’s daughter, Barbara, would be born in 1953. Little or nothing is known about her life other than that she died of cancer in 1984, just two years after her father, at the age of 31. Under the Prestige label, Monk made a few recordings with Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey, among others, but these were not recognized for their greatness at the time despite the significance they achieved in later years.

From 1954 to 1961, Monk was signed with Riverside Records and again began seeing some success. This period began in 1954 with Monk’s first trip to Europe and his meeting with the Baroness. It was a year that ended with a successful session on Christmas Eve that brought forth the music that would appear on two albums, Bags’ Groove and Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants. Even though many people recognized Monk’s brilliance in his music, his albums were not popular because his music was perceived as too difficult. “Monk was extremely sophisticated harmonically and rhythmically, his use of dissonance and the way he’s abrupt is so sophisticated. It takes time to develop an understanding of the tunes, to understand what makes the rhythms or the harmony work, and use that knowledge as a starting point” (Handy cited by Watrous). Riverside solved his problem with appealing to the masses by encouraging him to release a more accepted approach to interpreting pieces by Duke Ellington with the album Thelonius Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington. With this album released and more people listening to him, Monk developed his own music for Brilliant Corners released in 1956. In this album, the difficulty of his music became better appreciated. “Monk wrote knotty, asymmetrical pieces, built on splintered harmonies and sudden sprints and silences; they open up trap doors under any improviser who relies on routine” (Pareles, 1987). In 1957 before Monk was able to reinstate his Cabaret license and re-launch his performing career in New York and he spent the next several years playing clubs in the New York area.

Monk signed with Columbia Records in 1962 where he would stay until 1970, when he was 53 years old. Columbia had greater resources to help market Monk to his greater achievements, giving him the means to further his musical career. His first album with them was Monk’s Dream, created in the first few weeks of November 1963 with Charlie Rouse (saxophone), John Ore (bass) and Frankie Dunlop (drummer). This album would become Monk’s best-selling album and gained him an image on the cover of Time magazine (The Loneliest Monk, 1964). With Columbia, he recorded several good albums including Criss Cross (1963), Miles and Monk at Newport (1963), Live at the It Club (1964), Live at the Jazz Workshop (1964) and Underground (1968), but he was beginning to be limited in his amount of output. Only Underground had a significant number of new pieces with the majority of his other recordings being live performances.

Following 1970, Monk only made a few live appearances and fewer recordings. One of his last recordings was made toward the end of a worldwide tour in 1971 for the Black Lion label. The tour was called “the Greats of Jazz” and included many musicians that had performed with Monk on and off for the past 20 years. Artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Kai Winding, Al McKibbon and Sonny Stitt were part of the tour and seemed to feel Monk wasn’t quite the same man they had known. McKibbon, for instance, indicated Monk had ceased attempting to make idle communication, or any communication, with others. “He sent word back after the tour was over that the reason he couldn’t communicate or play was that Art Blakey and I were so ugly” (Voce, 2005). There were reports of a worsening but unidentified mental illness affecting the musician throughout the 1960s (Zwerin, 1988). In this documentary film, Monk’s son, the drummer T.S. Monk indicated that there were times when his father didn’t seem to recognize him and sometimes required hospitalization. Although there are no public records to back up this claim, but a pattern of behavior was reported that suggested some sort of disorder. Supposedly, Monk would experience two or three days of excitement and energy followed by another period of pacing and ending with a longer period of withdrawal in which he would speak to no one (Zwerin, 1988). This pattern would explain why some interviewers would comment on Monk’s eagerness to explain the complexity of his music while those who toured with him would have perceived him as absolutely silent and withdrawn. What seems clear, though, is that Monk did see a number of mental health professionals who each had their own ideas for the best course of treatment. By 1976, Monk had fully retreated to the New Jersey home of the Baroness where Charlie Parker had earlier struggled against his final illness (Sheridan, 2001). Although a piano was available to him full time, Monk never again expressed an interest in playing and he typically refused to speak with visitors. On February 17, 1982, Thelonius Monk died of a stroke and was buried in New York’s Ferncliff Cemetery never having achieved in life the kind of recognition he would achieve in death.

Thelonius Monk was a musical genius who may have even been something of a savant in his eccentricities. However, the ideas he brought to the musical world would forever change its sound and would earn him a place in music history as one of the greats of jazz. His surprising use of silence and his heavy application of percussion in his music was as different from the styling of the past as his fashion sense was different from the common fashions of the day. He truly knew how to lose himself in the music, frequently leaving the piano for minutes at a time in order to perform a dance in physical response to the music being created and he rarely constrained himself within the ideas of what had been done before. He achieved enough recognition within his lifetime to be honored with an image on the cover of Time magazine and to be included in a world tour of jazz greats, but his greater awards came more than a decade after his death. In 1993, he was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and by 2006 he was awarded with a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation. Many tributes have been made to him through special compositions and live performances of his work, including special emphasis on some of his lesser known and more difficult works.

Works Cited

Baraka, Amiri. “Minton’s.” The Blacklisted Journalist. (2003). Web.

Cardinal, F. “The Music of Your Dreams.” Music and Your Mind. (2006).

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Cook, Richard & Brian Morton. The Penguin Guide to Jazz. London: Penguin, 2008.

Feuer, Alan. “Where Lady Day Sleeps, A Jazz Tradition Awakes.” New York Times. (2005). Web.

Goelet, Francis. “Jazz.” Recorded Anthology of American Music. (2002). New World Records. Web.

“The Loneliest Monk.” Time. (1964).

Sheridan, Chris. Brilliant Corners: A Bio-Discography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Tanner, Paul O. W. & Maurice Gerow. A Study of Jazz. Dubuque, IO: William C. Brown Company, 1964.

Voce, Steve. “Obituary: Al McKibbon.” The Independent. August 1, 2005.

Williams, Mary Lou. “In Her Own Words.” Melody Maker. (1954). Web.

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Zwerin, Charlotte. Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser. Warner Home Video, 1988.

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