Thelonious Sphere Monk (October 10, 1917 – February 17, 1982) was a jazz pianist and composer. He is known for his unique improvisational style and many contributions to the standard jazz repertoire, including his classic works "'Round Midnight" and "Blue Monk." Monk is often regarded as a founder of bebop, although his playing style evolved away from the form. His compositions and improvisations often highlight rhythmic and spatial relationships rather than melody.
Raised in the Black Church tradition, Monk suffered greatly for his art—as have many artists in the African-American experience. He persevered to become a great and original force in the jazz world.
Little is known about Monk's early life. He was born on October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the son of Thelonious and Barbara Monk, with a sister named Marian who was two years older. A younger brother, Thomas, was born a couple of years later. The 1920 US Federal Census lists Thelonious and his father (a laborer) as "Theloins." Monk started playing the piano at the age of six; although he had some formal training and eavesdropped on his sister's piano lessons, he was essentially self-taught.
In 1922, the family moved to Manhattan living at 243 West 63rd Street, and Monk attended Stuyvesant High School, but did not graduate. He briefly toured with an evangelist in his teens, playing the church organ. In his late teens he began to find work playing jazz.
He is believed to be the pianist on some recordings Jerry Newman made around 1941 at Minton's Playhouse, the legendary Manhattan club where Monk had been hired as the house pianist. His style at the time is described as "hard-swinging," with the addition of runs in the style of Art Tatum. Monk's stated influences include Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and other early stride pianists.
Monk's unique piano style was largely perfected during his stint as the house pianist at Minton's in the early-to-mid 1940s, when he participated in the famous after-hours "cutting competitions" that featured most of the leading jazz soloists of the day. The Minton's scene was crucial in the formulation of the bebop genre and it brought Monk into close contact and collaboration with other leading exponents of bebop including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, and John Coltrane.
In 1944, Monk made his first studio recordings with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet. Hawkins was among the first prominent jazz musicians to promote Monk, and Monk later returned the favor by inviting Hawkins to join him on the 1957 session with John Coltrane. Monk made his first recordings as leader for Blue Note in 1947 (later anthologised on Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1) which showcased his talents as a composer of original melodies for improvisation. Monk married Nellie Smith the same year, and in 1949 the couple had a son, T.S. Monk, who later became a jazz drummer. A daughter, Barbara (affectionately known as Boo-Boo), was born in 1953.
In August 1951, New York City police searched a parked car occupied by Monk and friend Bud Powell. The police found narcotics in the car, presumed to have belonged to Powell. Monk refused to testify against his friend, so the police confiscated his New York City Cabaret Card. Without the all-important cabaret card he was unable to play in any New York venue where liquor was served, and this severely restricted his ability to perform for several crucial years. Monk spent most of the early and mid-1950s composing, recording, and performing at theaters and out-of-town gigs.
After his cycle of intermittent recording sessions for Blue Note during 1947–1952, he was under contract to Prestige Records for the following two years. With Prestige he cut several under-recognized, but highly significant albums, including collaborations with saxophonist Sonny Rollins and drummer Art Blakey. In 1954, Monk participated on the famed Christmas Eve sessions which produced the albums, Bags' Groove and Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants by Miles Davis. Davis found Monk's idiosyncratic accompaniment style difficult to improvise over and asked him to lay out (not accompany), which almost brought them to blows.
At the time of his signing to Riverside Monk was highly rated by his peers and by some critics, but his records did not sell in significant numbers, and his music was still regarded as too "difficult" for mass-market acceptance. Indeed, Riverside had managed to buy out his previous Prestige contract for a mere $108.24. His breakthrough came thanks to a compromise between Monk and the label, who convinced him to record two albums of his interpretations of jazz standards.
His debut for Riverside was a 'themed' record featuring Monk's distinctive interpretations of the music of Duke Ellington. The resulting LP, Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, was designed to bring Monk to a wider audience, and pave the way for a broader acceptance of his unique style. According to recording producer Orrin Keepnews, Monk appeared unfamiliar with the Ellington tunes and spent a long time reading the sheet music and picking the melodies out on the piano keys. Given Monk's long history of playing, it seems unlikely that he did not know Ellington's music, and it has been surmised that Monk's seeming ignorance of the material was a manifestation of his typically perverse humor, combined with an unstated reluctance to prove his own musical competency by playing other composers' works (even at this late date, there were still critics who carped that Monk "couldn't play"). The album is generally regarded as one of the less successful Monk studio outings.
Finally, on the 1956 LP Brilliant Corners, Monk was able to record his own music. The complex title track (which featured legendary tenor saxophonist, Sonny Rollins) was so difficult to play that the final version had to be put together as seamlessly as possible from three separate takes.
In 1954, he paid his first visit to Europe, performing and recording in Paris. It was here that he first met Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, "Nica," member of the Rothschild banking family of England, the "jazz baroness" and patroness of several New York City jazz musicians. She would be a close friend for the rest of his life.
Monk also spent many hours with pianist Mary Lou Williams and they worked on a three-piano composition with Bud Powell never, alas, completed. Monk also started dropping in on jazz singer, Carmen McRea. Both recalled that, he'd sit and play the same composition over and over. When asked about it, Monk replied, 'that he was trying to see if it would be a hit'!
Carmen would later, in 1988, record an album of songs set to Monk's music, almost as original as his. This proved to be the pinnacle of her fine career. Carmen McRea, Carmen Sings Monk on Bluebird BMG, lyrics by Jon Hendricks, Abbey Lincoln, Mike Ferro, Sally Swisher And Bernie Hanighen.
After having his cabaret card restored, Monk relaunched his New York career with a landmark six-month residency at the Five Spot Cafe in New York beginning in June 1957, leading a quartet that included John Coltrane on tenor saxophone. Unfortunately little of this group's music was documented, apparently because of contractual problems (Coltrane was signed to Prestige). One studio session was made by Riverside but only later released on Jazzland; an amateur tape from the Five Spot (not the original residency, it seems, but a later 1958 reunion) was uncovered in the 1990s and issued on Blue Note. On November 29 that year the quartet performed at Carnegie Hall and the concert was recorded in high fidelity by the Voice of America broadcasting service. The long-lost tape of that concert was rediscovered in the collection of the Library of Congress in January 2005. In 1958 Johnny Griffin took Coltrane's place as tenor player in Monk's band.
In 1958, Monk and de Koenigswarter were detained by police in Wilmington, Delaware. When Monk refused to answer the police officers' questions or cooperate with them, they beat him with a blackjack. Though the police were authorized to search the vehicle and found narcotics in suitcases held in the trunk of the Baroness's car, Judge Christie of the Delaware Superior Court ruled that the unlawful detention of the pair, and the beating of Monk, rendered the consent to the search void as given under duress. State v. De Koenigswarter, 177 A.2d 344 (Del. Super. 1962). Monk was represented by Theophilus Nix, the second African-American member of the Delaware Bar Association.
In 1964, he appeared on the cover of Time (magazine). By now he was signed to a major label, Columbia Records, and was promoted more widely than earlier in his career. Monk also had a regular working group, featuring the tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, but by now his compositional output had largely dried up. Only his final Columbia disc, Underground, featured a substantial number of new tunes, including his only waltz-time piece, "Ugly Beauty."
He disappeared from the scene in the early 1970s and made only a small number of appearances during the final decade of his life. His last recording was completed in November 1971.
Monk's manner was idiosyncratic. Visually, he was renowned for his distinctively "hip" sartorial style in suits, hats and sunglasses, and he developed an unusual, highly syncopated and percussive manner of playing piano. He was also noted for the fact that at times he would stop playing, stand up from the keyboard and dance in a counterclockwise fashion, ring-shout style, while the other musicians in the combo played.
It is said that he would rarely speak to anyone other than his beloved wife Nellie, and in later years it was reported that he would go through an entire tour without speaking to the other members of his group. Bassist Al McKibbon, who had known Monk for twenty years and played on his final tour in 1971, later said "On that tour Monk said about two words. I mean literally maybe two words. He didn't say 'Good morning', 'Goodnight', 'What time?' Nothing. Why, I don't know. 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."
One story had some fellow musicians looking for him at a club out of hours but after searching the place high and low he couldn't be found. A little later Thelonious came strolling out. 'He must have been walking on the ceiling!', one remarked.
Although these anecdotes may typify Monk's behavior in his later life, in Lewis Porter's biography of John Coltrane, the saxophonist reveals a very different side of Monk; Coltrane states that Monk was, in his opinion:
"... exactly the opposite of Miles [Davis]. He talks about music all the time and wants so much for you to understand that if, by chance, you ask him something, he'll spend hours if necessary to explain it to you."
There has been speculation that some of Monk's quirky behavior was due to mental illness. In the documentary film Straight, No Chaser (produced in 1989 by Clint Eastwood on the subject of Monk's life and music), Monk's son, T.S. Monk, a drummer, reported that Monk was on several occasions hospitalized due to an unspecified mental illness that worsened in the late 1960s. No diagnosis was ever made public, but some have noted that Monk's symptoms suggest bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or Tourette's Syndrome. Whatever the precise diagnosis, anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that Monk was suffering from some form of pathological introversion (cf. Syd Barrett) and that from the late sixties onward he became increasingly uncommunicative and withdrawn. As his health declined, his last years were spent as a guest in the New Jersey home of his long-standing patron, Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, who had also nursed Charlie Parker during his final illness. He died of a stroke on February 17, 1982 and was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
Following his death, Monnk's music has been rediscovered by a wider audience and he is now counted alongside the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and others as a major figure in the history of jazz.
Jazz pianist Laurent De Wilde, in his biography of Monk, wrote about his music:
Thelonious didn't get his style from the church but rather the very soul of his music. By touring the States extensively with an evangelist, he witnessed faith infused with music. Music that speaks, music that makes people dance. Music that draws the ear to the regions where the soul is elevated, wilder, and, too, more serene. That is the music of Thelonious. An unshakeable faith in himself, in his work, and in a power that guides him, shines forth whenever he sits down at the piano.
Monk's music is arguably the most recorded of any jazz composer. In 2006, Monk was posthumously awarded a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize board for "a body of distinguished and innovative musical composition that has had a significant and enduring impact on the evolution of jazz.
Asteroid (11091) Thelonious was named in honor of Thelonious Monk.
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