Oct 10, 2017
One hundred years ago today, the man who would forever change the way jazz piano was played was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Thelonious Sphere Monk would go on to be that rare artist whose career spanned almost all of the important historical genres, and who earned the right to be called the “Genius of Modern Music.” But it took a long time for the world to catch up with him.
Monk’s family moved to Manhattan when he was four years old, and by his early teens, he was playing stride piano in rent parties and organ at church services. At 18 he had dropped out of high school to pursue music, and had his own group. When drummer Kenny “Klook” Clarke tapped him to join the house band as pianist at the renowned Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem in 1941, his career seemed to be taking off for good.
Minton’s became ground zero for the Bebop Revolution, which Monk helped create with Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Mary Lou Williams, Tadd Dameron and Bud Powell. His approach to timing and harmony quickly passed Bebop’s signature stylings, as he added his signature use of an active right hand, interspersing wildly different chords and phrasings. Rather than re-write standards (think the Rhythm Changes) he wrote new and exciting compositions that were known for incorporating slower tempos and imaginative use of space and harmonics, including the classic “’Round Midnight.”
Yet it would be years before he was regularly playing outside of New York (with Coleman Hawkins) and not until 1947 that he got to cut his first recordings for Blue Note. He recorded there for five years, making classic recordings that were nonetheless considered commercial failures at the time. In August of 1951, he was falsely arrested for narcotics possession (allegedly covering for Powell) and stripped of his all-important cabaret card. Without that card, he was banned from New York clubs, a crippling financial blow. He still managed a great recorded output, sitting in on memorable sessions with Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, and eventually recording for the Prestige and Riverside labels.
Arguably, it was not until 1957, when he got his card back, that he became truly well-known. He had a long residency at the It Club with John Coltrane, and finally achieved some modicum of fame. By 1961, he had formed the great quartet built around saxophonist Charlie Rouse, and three years later became the third jazz musician in history to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. He continued to write and record actively, both for himself and others, until his death in 1982, two weeks after suffering a stroke.
If today many think of Monk mostly as an eccentric, a genius with strange tics and habits, they miss the great joy in listening to the way he plays the most basic melody, making it so that the listener almost always can tell that it is uniquely Monk. Podcast 595 honors the Monk Centennial with an hour of music from across the spectrum of his career. Today the music is played by Monk, solo and with his many groups. Tomorrow, the same tunes are interpreted by many of jazz’s greatest players, from Miles Davis to Paul Motian to John Beasley’s MONK’estra.
Musical selections are:
“Ruby My Dear”
“Four in One”
“Crepuscule with Nelly”
“Straight No Chaser”