Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk is one of the first creators of modern jazz and bebop and is considered by all to be one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. For much of his career, Monk played with small groups at Milton’s Playhouse in New York. Many of his compositions have become jazz standards, including “Well, You Needn’t,” “Blue Monk” and “Round Midnight.” His open chords, angular sounding phrases were a revolution to jazz. It was a new sound. His beautifully crafted melodies had a humorous and playfulness to them but could also be quite demanding to interpret.

Monk was born on October 10, 1917, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. When he was just four, his parents moved to New York City, where he spent the next five decades of his life.

Monk began studying classical piano when he was 11 but had already shown some aptitude for the instrument. By the time Monk was 13, he had won the weekly amateur competition at the Apollo Theater so many times that the management banned him from re-entering the contest.

At age 17, Monk toured with the so-called “Texas Warhorse,” an evangelist and faith healer, before assembling a quartet of his own. Although it was typical to play for a big band at this time, Monk preferred a more intimate small group.

In 1941, Monk began working at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, where he joined the house band and helped develop the school of jazz known as bebop. Alongside Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach, he explored and propelled the fast, improvised styles that would later become the turning point and to a new style of playing, modern jazz. The revolution was in full swing at Minton’s.

Monk didn’t record under his own name until 1947, when he played as the leader of a sextet session for Blue Note.

Monk made a total of five Blue Note recordings between 1947 and 1952, including “Criss Cross” and “Evidence.” These are generally regarded as the first works characteristic of Monk’s uniqueness embracing percussive, dissonant melodies, and different, open chords that no one had experimented with before. As Monk said, “The piano ain’t got no wrong notes!”

Monk’s 1956 album, Brilliant Corners, is considered to be his first true masterpiece. The album’s title track made a splash with its innovative, technically demanding, and extremely complex sound, which had to be edited together from many separate takes. With the release of Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, Monk finally received the acclaim he deserved.

In 1957, the Thelonious Monk Quartet, which by now included Coltrane, began performing regularly at the Five Spot in New York. Enjoying huge success, they went on to tour the United States and even make some appearances in Europe. By 1962, Monk was so popular that he was given a contract with Columbia Records, a decidedly more mainstream label than Riverside. In 1964, Monk became one of four jazz musicians ever to grace the cover of Time Magazine.

In the 70’s, Monk suffered from a number of serious illnesses for several years, and passed away from a stroke in 1982. He has since been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry, and featured on a United States postage stamp.

Thelonious Sphere Monk Jr. is a true originator of modern jazz. Monk probably said it best when he insisted that a “genius is one who is most like himself.”

Photo credits:

  1. Photo on home –
  2. Photos #1 above – Wikipedia