Thelonious Monk - Biography

Thelonious Sphere Monk. Even the name conveys a sense of mystery and intrigue. An innovative pianist and important composer, Monk has had a deep and lasting effect on the course of jazz. Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, one of his foremost interpreters, noted that “Monk’s music has profound humanity, disciplined economy, balanced virility, dramatic nobility, and innocently exuberant wit.” Another disciple, pianist Randy Weston, says “Not that his music isn't often complex to execute, but it always comes through so clear and accurate, so uncluttered. His music is simple in the sense that it has totality of personality. It's all him.” Saxophone giant John Coltrane, who played in Monk’s quartet in the fifties, remarked that “If you didn’t keep aware all the time of what was going on, you’d suddenly feel as if you’d stepped into an empty elevator shaft.” This largely self-taught genius, a “brilliant, difficult, and demanding man,” in long-time producer’s Orrin Keepnews’ words, was also one of the great teachers of modern jazz. Lacy, Coltrane and Sonny Rollins are some of the more prominent forces in jazz who benefitted greatly from their time with him.


Thelonious Monk was born on October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the second of three children. The family moved to New York City when the boy was four, settling in the San Juan Hill area, not far from where stride piano master James P. Johnson lived. Young Thelonious (Thelious on his birth certificate) was named for his father. Health considerations soon forced Thelonious Sr. to leave the family and return to the South, where he died around 1940.


At around the age of five, young Thelonious became fascinated by the workings of a player piano that had been given to the family. He started picking out melodies and watching over his sister’s shoulder as she took lessons. He started taking lessons from her teacher when he was 11. He also played in church, accompanying his mother on piano and organ. Admitted to New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School, Monk was a good student in math and physics, but music was what really attracted him and held his interest. He was already hanging around Johnson’s house, absorbing what he could. As a teenager, he played gigs in bars and at rent parties and eventually dropped out of school to go out on the road with “…a group that played church music for an evangelist. Rock and Roll or Rhythm and Blues,” as he described it later.


Back in New York in the mid-thirties, Monk attended the Juilliard School of Music for a while, studying arranging and music theory. He also gigged constantly at bars, theaters and dance halls. “I worked all over town,” he later reminisced, “I’ve been on every kind of job you can think of.” In 1940, when Teddy Hill became the manager of Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, he needed a house band to play at the jam sessions that were a regular after-hours feature of the club. Monk was hired as the pianist, along with trumpeter Joe Guy, bassist Nick Fenton and drummer Kenny Clarke. From 1941 through 1943, Monk and his cohorts, who came to include guitarist Charlie Christian and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, among many others, worked out the new music of bebop. Several of the Minton’s sessions were recorded on portable equipment over the years. Issued on a variety of bootleg labels, these recordings constitute the earliest documentation of Monk’s piano playing.


Although he was right in the thick of things for the bebop revolution, Monk’s own music bore little resemblance to typical bop fare. As he explained it to George Simon in a 1948 interview, most boppers “…think differently harmonically. They play mostly stuff that’s based on the chords of other things, like the blues and ‘I Got Rhythm.’ I like the whole song - melody and chord structure - to be different.” During this period, Monk composed a number of his most famous pieces, including “‘Round Midnight,” “Ruby My Dear,” and “Rhythm-A-Ning.” His collaboration with Clarke, “Epistrophy,” became the radio theme song for the Cootie Williams band in 1942.


In addition to his stint at Minton’s, Monk also paid his dues in house bands at Monroe's Uptown House and Kelly's Stables, and in big bands led by Gillespie, Williams and Lucky Millinder. Monk finally made his recording debut in 1944 in a quartet led by tenor saxophone giant Coleman Hawkins. They recorded four songs for the small Joe Davis label that didn’t come out until 1946. Slowly gathering a cadre of like-minded, younger musicians like drummer Art Blakey, bassist Al McKibbon, and saxophonist Sahib Shihab, Monk continued to work on his own music. In 1947, he worked a variety of jobs around Harlem, including a long stint back at Minton’s. Through his acquaintance with saxophonist and talent scout Ike Quebec, Monk signed a contract with Blue Note Records, enabling him to record his own music in his own way for the first time.


The first Blue Note session took place on October 15, 1947, five days after Monk’s thirtieth birthday. The repertoire and style he introduced on this sextet date and subsequent sessions in October and November 1947 and July 1948 established the unique musical world that Monk would spend the rest of his career exploring, even as it took the jazz public many years to catch on. "I say, play your own way,” he said. “Don't play what the public wants. You play what you want and let the public pick up on what you're doing - even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years.” Monk’s reputation as a mystical eccentric developed in the forties and was only reinforced by a Blue Note marketing campaign dubbing him “the High Priest of Be-Bop.” Even with the support of the label in bookings, Monk had trouble finding work as a leader. Alfred Lion of Blue Note later told writer Nat Hentoff that “In those days, Monk was completely isolated... I doubt if he ever had a job that lasted more than two weeks at a time.” Although his records didn’t sell very well, Blue Note continued to record Monk, who returned to the studio in 1951 and 1952. In August 1951, Monk was arrested along with his life-long friend Bud Powell on a charge of narcotics possession. Refusing to implicate his friends, Monk took the rap and did sixty days in jail. Worse was the loss of his “cabaret card,” without which he couldn’t play in a New York night spot. Monk had married childhood sweetheart Nellie Smith in the late forties and his young family survived by living with the extended Monk family and with the aid of Nellie’s domestic jobs.


Monk signed an exclusive recording contract with Prestige Records in the spring of 1952. He made several albums of his own over the next several years and also recorded with Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis. In the spring of 1954, he went to Europe to perform at the Paris Jazz Festival. While in France, he recorded his first album of solo piano for the Vogue label. That same year, he met the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who was to be his close friend and patron for the rest of his life. He was still unable to work in New York clubs, but Monk’s stature was slowly rising, thanks in part to an important solo by Miles Davis on Monk’s rendition of “‘Round Midnight” at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival. Meanwhile, Monk was unhappy with Prestige. He was actively courted that spring by the independent Riverside Records, which had bought out his Prestige contract for the price of $108.27. Riverside co-owner Orrin Keepnews had written one of the first serious considerations of Monk’s music in a 1948 article and was eager to work with him (although as he later wrote, “Signing this genius was not hard; recording him was never easy.”).


To help lower the barriers between Monk and his audience, and emphasize that he was deeply conversant in the jazz tradition, the first Riverside project was Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington (1955) with a trio of bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Kenny Clarke. The follow-up, The Unique Thelonious Monk (1956), had Art Blakey on drums with Pettiford and a program of standards chosen by the pianist. By the time of the third Riverside project, Keepnews felt that their goal of reintroducing Monk to the jazz audience had been achieved. It was time to record him playing his original compositions in larger settings. Brilliant Corners (1956) featured two different quintets that included Rollins, Pettiford, drummer Max Roach, and trumpeter Clark Terry. Tracks on this gem of fifties jazz include the fiendishly tricky title track, “Pannonica,” Monk’s ode to the Baroness, and “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are.”


By 1957, efforts by the Baroness and Monk’s personal manager to restore his cabaret card succeeded, and Monk was able to work in Manhattan for the first time in years. He secured an open-ended gig at the Five Spot, where he appeared with a quartet of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Shadow Wilson, an engagement that lasted for five months. Monk was a guest with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers on Jazz Connection (Atlantic). There were two critically acclaimed sessions for Riverside that year as well, the Monk’s Music album with Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins in the septet, and a collaboration with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. He also appeared on CBS television’s The Sound of Jazz. A November Carnegie Hall concert with Coltrane recorded by the Voice of America was the jazz sensation of 2005 when it surfaced at the Library of Congress and was issued by Blue Note.


When his first contract with Riverside ran out in 1958, Monk renewed with the label for another three year term, producing a few live albums with new tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, his first orchestra date, and a quintet session with cornetist Thad Jones. The Complete Riverside Recordings were issued in a 15-CD boxed set in 1992. By 1961, Monk was ready to move to a major label, and Columbia Records was happy to have him come aboard. Monk’s first recording for them was in October, 1962, in his preferred quartet format. On tenor sax was Charlie Rouse, already several years into his eleven-year stint in the band. Monk’s composing had fallen off significantly by this time and there were few new pieces introduced in the Columbia period. In addition to a well-received series of studio albums, including Monk’s Dream (1962), It’s Monk’s Time (1964), and Straight, No Chaser (1966), the label recorded the Monk quartet prolifically on stage during domestic and international tours in the sixties. Some tracks appeared at the time and the full sets have subsequently been issued on CDs like Monk in Tokyo (Legacy 2001) and Live at the Jazz Workshop (Legacy 1999). When the Columbia publicity department helped get Monk on the cover of Time magazine in 1964, his reaction was, "I'm famous. Ain't that a bitch!"


But with the ascendance of rock music, Monk had difficulty finding a place for himself, and the label didn’t know what to do with him either. His final Columbia small band release, Underground (1968), featured four new compositions, including “Ugly Beauty” and “Green Chimneys,” along with a special appearance by vocalist Jon Hendricks on “In Walked Bud.” Monk’s Blues (1969), a poorly-received big band album, ended Monk’s Columbia years. Although he didn’t work much for the next couple of years, there were tours of Europe in 1969 and Japan in 1970. Beginning in 1971, Monk was on a lengthy world tour with the Giants of Jazz, an all-star sextet with Gillespie, McKibbon, Blakey, trombonist Kai Winding and saxophonist Sonny Stitt. During the tour’s London stop, he recorded his final albums as a leader in a marathon day of piano solos and trio work with McKibbon and Blakey for the British Black Lion label. Monk had problems with depression throughout his life and as his health declined in the mid-seventies, he and Nellie retreated to the New Jersey home of the Baroness. His last official appearance was at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1976. Thelonious Monk suffered a stroke on February 5, 1982. Never regaining consciousness, he died on February 17.


Monk has been the subject of several biographies and at least two films (1986's Music in Monk Time and 1988's Straight, No Chaser). When asked by Ira Gitler in the fifties why more musicians weren’t playing his compositions, Monk replied that “It’s not hard to play but I know it, that’s all, maybe.” By the early part of the 21st century, a lot more musicians “know it,” so there have been countless albums in widely varying formats devoted completely to his tunes and a number of groups whose repertoire consists entirely of Monk’s work. There’s even an ensemble led by Alexander von Schlippenbach that plays all of Monk’s compositions in a single evening. In 1986, the Monk family founded the now world-renowned Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. And Monk’s son, drummer T.S. Monk, has been releasing vintage concerts on his Thelonious Records imprint. Monk Lives!


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