Saturday was the birthday of pianist and composer Thelonious Monk (October 10, 1917 – February 17, 1982) so I wanted to write a little something in his honor. First and foremost, he was unusual, and the uniqueness and peculiarities of Monk's personality were perfectly reflected in his music. This is partially the secret to his success. He put so much of himself into how he played, and the tunes he wrote that as a listener you can't help but feel some sense of kinship with him. He put himself out there as an artist, naked. He wasn't polished technically, but he was advanced in his own way. His melodies are very angular and rhythmic but catchy at the same time. Some are incredibly simple. Some deceptively so. His own sound on the piano was a bit square and clunky, but in a charming way. Most composers are very loyal to their tunes but Monk was one of few who might change his own tunes a bit from gig to gig.
But his eccentricities don't end there. Sometimes during concerts and apparently recording sessions also, he would get up in the middle of a tune and dance (or turn around in circles, seemingly in a trance) instead of playing the piano. Rumor has it he couldn't read a clock.
All strangeness aside, he is arguably the most popular composer among jazz musicians. It is ridiculous how many different artists have recorded his tunes. His composition Round Midnight is considered one of the crown-jewels of jazz repertoire. Guitarist Steve Cardinas did an excellent job of transcribing Monk's tunes for a book called the Thelonious Monk Fake Book, which is an invaluable resource for musicians.
However, he is also a somewhat controversial figure in jazz, having received negative criticism early in his career. It's easy to see how people wouldn't know what to make of him, as Keith Jarrett demonstrated in a recent interview with Ethan Iverson. Jarrett was flummoxed when asked for his opinion on Monk after giving his opinion on Bud Powell. "Thelonious isn’t amazing in the same way, but he’s… what would I say about that? I dunno. I dunno what to say about him. I like his stuff. I just don’t know what I’d say. It’s sideways to the flow. It’s like he’s over at the side of the road, flashing at you, saying 'Hello! I’ve got this for you.' It’s important, but it’s only him. And it’s sort of singular. So I don’t know what I would say." Obviously, having recorded several of Monk's tunes, Jarrett holds Monk in high esteem as a composer, but as a pianist, especially next to Bud Powell, there's some hesitation.
By contrast, Chick Corea has nothing but praise for Monk in a recent interview on Jazz.com. "The man was just doing something completely unique and uncompromising, and it wasn't that flashy. It was just … hip." Corea goes on to tell a story about seeing Monk play the same tune three times in a row at the same tempo. It's that conviction to chart a course unthinkable for most, and pull it off, that makes Monk such an unparalleled artist.
Without a doubt, Powell easily trumps Monk in the technique department. Yet, somehow it doesn't matter. Monk's voice is so strong, his conception so defined, it reaches beyond the technical. As Bill Evans once said, "Make no mistake. This man knows exactly what he is doing in a theoretical way – organized, more than likely in a personal terminology, but strongly organized nevertheless. We can be further grateful to him for combining aptitude, insight, drive, compassion, fantasy, and whatever makes the total artist, and we should also be grateful for such direct speech in an age of insurmountable conformist pressures." – from Leonard Feather's 'Encyclopedia of Jazz'
When I was a student at William Paterson College there were some who thought one should always approach Monk's music in a certain way… like Monk. But if there's only one thing we can learn from him, it's to be yourself. Monk sounded like Monk whether he was playing his own tunes or standards, and that's how it should be. As Brad Mehldau and Bill Evans demonstrate in the videos below, a musician should seek to be true to himself. Otherwise, there won't be an emotional connection with the audience or the other musicians. The best music comes from an honest and personal place, no matter who wrote the song.
I think that the first Monk tune that I learned and performed with my trio was I Mean You, which has a kind of joyful bounce. I also used to play Rhythm-a-Ning, Monk's Dream, Hackensack, Eronel, Pannonica, Little Rootie Tootie, Think of One, his arrangement of Just You, Just Me and his composition Evidence which he wrote over the changes of Just You, Just Me… but I think my favorite was always Ugly Beauty which was the only waltz among his recorded compositions.
What is your favorite Monk tune?
Beautiful, and very deep article, thanks.
I love Thelonious, as pianist, and of course as composer, one of the few still fighting back the pass of time.
If you can see some of his live performances, simply amazing, too much energy flowing…
Do you know the documentary "Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser" (Charlotte Zwerin, 1988), produced by Clint Eastwood?
I can understand Keith Jarrett explanation, too well, because sometimes I've got that door in connection with the "outside" closed as Thelonious, sad he wasn't able to open it to breath a little more.
I miss him…
Best wishes, as always,
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My first exposure to Monk was probably 'Round Midnight via Miles Davis and John Coltrane. While I listened to a lot of Monk, I remember having my mind expanded to Monk as a composer through a compilation entitled "That's The Way I Feel Now" which included covers by a wide variety of interpreters including Dr John, Carla Bley, and Was (Not Was). I fell in love with one particular cut on that record: Steve Lacy and Charlie Rouse performing Ask Me Now. Just two unaccompanied saxophonists, both of whom played with Monk, honoring his music. To this day, Ask Me Now is my favorite Monk composition.
great write-up…learned a lot. 🙂