When discussing jazz pianists, who we’ve been exploring here on #BlackMusicSunday for the last two weeks, it has become difficult to cover all of the greats—there are so many. Even narrowing it down to what is known as “the bebop era” doesn’t make it any easier. However, for me there was no question about who to feature today: The man and his music have fascinated me ever since I heard him play live in New York City while I was attending Music and Art High School in the early ‘60s. My young, aspiring jazz musician schoolmates and I became immersed in the tail end of the bohemian bebop scene in the Village. The pianist whose sheer genius blew us away at the time was a man named Thelonious Sphere Monk.
It was jazz drummer Roy Haynes who introduced me to recordings of bebop jazz poet-singer-comedian Babs Gonzales, who gave nicknames to the musicians who were part of his world. Though he was throwing shade, his moniker for Monk was apt: He dubbed him “Melodious Thunk.” There are few melodies as haunting as some of Monk’s compositions, and his percussive and often dissonant piano-playing style certainly differed from that of other piano players. Thus, the “thunk.” Monk himself will continue to be an enigma for many, but his music has become part of the building blocks of jazz; contributing classics to the standards playbook.
Thelonious Monk is immortalized in the National Portrait Gallery in a painting by artist Boris Chaliapin, which was used for a Time Magazine cover.
He was also featured on a U.S. postal stamp issued in 1995.
Just as much of an honor in the world of jazz, it was a point of pride to be lampooned by “Babs,” though Monk wasn’t the only bebopper immortalized by Gonzales.
Biographer Robin Kelley details Monk’s beginnings on the official Monk website, which is maintained by Monk’s son, jazz drummer T.S. Monk:
Born on October 10, 1917, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Thelonious was only four when his mother and his two siblings, Marion and Thomas, moved to New York City. Unlike other Southern migrants who headed straight to Harlem, the Monks settled on West 63rd Street in the “San Juan Hill” neighborhood of Manhattan, near the Hudson River. His father, Thelonious, Sr., joined the family three years later, but health considerations forced him to return to North Carolina. During his stay, however, he often played the harmonica, ‘Jew’s harp,” and piano—all of which probably influenced his son’s unyielding musical interests. Young Monk turned out to be a musical prodigy in addition to a good student and a fine athlete. He studied the trumpet briefly but began exploring the piano at age nine. He was about nine when Marion’s piano teacher took Thelonious on as a student. By his early teens, he was playing rent parties, sitting in on organ and piano at a local Baptist church, and was reputed to have won several “amateur hour” competitions at the Apollo Theater.
Admitted to Peter Stuyvesant, one of the city’s best high schools, Monk dropped out at the end of his sophomore year to pursue music and around 1935 took a job as a pianist for a traveling evangelist and faith healer. Returning after two years, he formed his own quartet and played local bars and small clubs until the spring of 1941, when drummer Kenny Clarke hired him as the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem.
Minton’s, legend has it, was where the “bebop revolution” began. The after-hours jam sessions at Minton’s, along with similar musical gatherings at Monroe’s Uptown House, Dan Wall’s Chili Shack, among others, attracted a new generation of musicians brimming with fresh ideas about harmony and rhythm—notably Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Mary Lou Williams, Kenny Clarke, Oscar Pettiford, Max Roach, Tadd Dameron, and Monk’s close friend and fellow pianist, Bud Powell. Monk’s harmonic innovations proved fundamental to the development of modern jazz in this period. Anointed by some critics as the “High Priest of Bebop,” several of his compositions (“52nd Street Theme,” “Round Midnight,” “Epistrophy” [co-written with Kenny Clarke and originally titled “Fly Right” and then “Iambic Pentameter”], “I Mean You”) were favorites among his contemporaries.
Let’s take a listen to one of his earliest tunes, “Epistrophy,” recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1957.
There is a fascinating story behind this recording: It was lost for decades. NPR’s “All Things Considered” did a radio program on the discovery in 2005.
One day in late January, Larry Appelbaum was thumbing through some old Voice of America audiotapes about to be digitized at the Library of Congress when he made a discovery that would stun him and many other jazz fans. One day in late January, Larry Appelbaum was thumbing through some old Voice of America audiotapes about to be digitized at the Library of Congress when he made a discovery that would stun him and many other jazz fans. Eight 10-inch reels of acetate tape were labeled "Carnegie Hall Jazz 1957." One of the tape boxes had a handwritten note on the back that said "T. Monk" with some song titles.
Appelbaum, a jazz specialist at the Library of Congress, got excited at the prospect of finding unpublished materials by the jazz master Thelonious Monk. Then he heard another distinctive sound. "I recognized the tenor saxophone of John Coltrane and my heart started to race," Appelbaum says.
Probably the most recorded tune by Monk is “Round Midnight,” both as instrumental versions and with vocals.
“‘Round Midnight” is Thelonious Monk’s best-known jazz composition and carries the grand distinction of being the most-recorded jazz standard written by any jazz musician. The Monk CD, Best of the Blue Note Years documents the 1947 group recording of “‘Round Midnight” (1991, Blue Note 95636). A solo version from 1957 is available on Thelonious Himself (1991, Orig. Jazz Classics 254).
According to Thomas Fitterling in Thelonious Monk: His Life and Music, Monk wrote “‘Round Midnight” when he was just 18. Eight years later, in 1944, at jazz pianist Bud Powell’s urging, Cootie Williams and His Orchestra recorded the song. Depending on whose version of history you believe, Williams modified the composition either very slightly or not at all. In any case, he shares credit for it in terms of copyright. Originally titled “’Round About Midnight,” Monk’s composition became the theme song for Williams’ Orchestra. Jackie Paris introduced it as a vocal in 1949, after Bernie Hanighen added the lyrics.
Though the video quality of this clip is poor, watching and listening to Monk play it solo is worth taking the time out to listen.
Then segue to Monk with Miles Davis at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955, which jazz historians cite as the performance that rescued Miles’ career.
As a jazz vocals fan, I could probably write an entire story on singers and Round Midnight because there are so many renditions of the tune I love, sung by all the top vocalists from that time period, and it’s still a standard today. My top pick is the purity and clarity of Ella Fitzgerald’s version, performed here live with Oscar Peterson on piano.
And finally, in this set, we move forward in time to Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea in a piano/vocal duet.
For those of you interested in taking a deeper dive into Monk and his music, Dr. Robin D. G. Kelley, distinguished professor and Gary B. Nash endowed chair in U.S. history at UCLA, wrote the definitive biography of Monk, “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original” in 2009, updated with an afterword for Monk’s 2017 centennial.
Thelonious Monk is the critically acclaimed, gripping saga of an artist’s struggle to “make it” without compromising his musical vision. It is a story that, like its subject, reflects the tidal ebbs and flows of American history in the twentieth century. To his fans, he was the ultimate hipster; to his detractors, he was temperamental, eccentric, taciturn, or childlike. His angular melodies and dissonant harmonies shook the jazz world to its foundations, ushering in the birth of “bebop” and establishing Monk as one of America’s greatest composers.
Here are two in-depth looks at the text. For The Atlantic, Douglas Gorney wrote The Secret Life of Thelonious Monk.
For me, Monk had been an obsession—aesthetically and culturally—pretty much from the moment I was introduced to his music as a teenage wannabe jazz piano player. But when the subject of Thelonious Monk comes up, the eccentricities are what people talk about first, as you just did. Descriptions of his music become conflated with descriptions of his behavior, onstage and off. I wanted to disentangle those things, understand who Thelonious Monk was as a human being, and who he was as an artist.
I won't lie to you—when I went into this project, I didn't know I would find what I ended up finding. I was surprised by the depth of Monk's musical education. I was surprised by the way he suffered, financially, as an artist—even after he became the one of the most recognizable faces in jazz and was on the cover of national magazines, he just wasn't making much money. I was surprised by his deep commitment to his family and his community. It was the mundane things that I found most fascinating, not the outlandish, eccentric character we usually associate with Monk. As a consequence, I ended up writing a very different book than what I thought I would write.
NPR also covered the book’s release: “In A New Biography, Monk Minus The Myth.”
Monk's work was often discounted by critics and the general public during the better part of his first two decades as a performer. When critical attention came his way, myths were spun around him, many of which remain to this day. Among them: that he was difficult, a recluse, an untrained genius. But in his new book, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Kelley tackles those enduring myths. He argues that Monk was not an isolated genius. He was connected to his New York City community, and he played benefits for the social causes of the day. And his talent was not some mysterious, God-given gift: Monk studied.
"Well, I always did want to play the piano — the first piano I saw, I tried to play it," Monk said on a 1963 public television broadcast on New York's Channel 13. "I learned how to read before I took lessons, you know, watching my sister practice her lessons over her shoulder."
That recording is but one of Kelley's discoveries over the 14 years he spent researching his book. In scouring roughly 300 interviews, he says he learned that Monk may have started reading music when he was 10. By the time he was 11, he began studying with a classically trained pianist named Simon Wolf. "The kinds of exercises he gave Thelonious came out of the books of Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninoff," Kelley says. "These were the composers Monk was drawn to; Bach, Beethoven to a lesser degree."
Several documentary films have been made about Monk and his music. Dr. Krim Gabbard has critiqued them in “Evidence: Monk as Documentary Subject,” which he wrote for the Black Music Research Journal back in 1999.
For those familiar with Thelonious Monk only through recordings, the experience of first seeing him perform on film can be startling. The outrageous hats, the splayed fingers, the sucked-in cheeks, the spastic dancing--all of it suggests a character with a story that goes well beyond the music. Yet for many years, Monk has been consistently presented as an inscrutable figure who could only be known through his music.(1) At least one filmmaker simply gave up trying to make sense of his puzzling exterior: when Bert Stem filmed the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival for Jazz on a Summer's Day (1958), he kept cutting away to shots of yacht races during the pianist's performance of "Blue Monk"; Monk is onscreen for less than thirty seconds. More ambitious filmmakers have extended a more searching gaze in three documentaries that provide strikingly different approaches to how Monk might be understood. The title of Matthew Seig's 1991 documentary is itself significant; Thelonious Monk: American Composer presents a dedicated artist and family man who created a spiritually rich music rooted in a great tradition. In Charlotte Zwerin's Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser (1988), Monk is bizarre and unpredictable, functioning as an artist primarily because of the highly professional support of sidepersons, the steadfast dedication of his wife Nellie, and the patronage of the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. The Monk prominently featured by Jean Bach in the film A Great Day in Harlem (1995) is a trickster who carefully choreographed how the world would see him.
Gabbard views “The American Composer” as an effort to put Monk “into the academy” (meaning respectability), which often ignores many of the other sides of his life, including his problems coping with mental illness and his relationship to his patron, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter.
On the other hand, the most well-known Monk documentary is “Straight No Chaser,” directed Charlotte Zwerin, which Roger Ebert reviewed back in 1989.
Right before I sat down to write this review, I put on the 1956 album "Brilliant Corners" by Thelonious Monk. If you are not very familiar with Monk, you may not recognize the title, but if you have ever found yourself in a bar with a good jukebox, you will recognize the music. This particular song is a happy one, but it is not mood that carries the stamp of Monk, it is authority. He played the piano as if he knew exactly what every note should mean and be, and had known it for a long time.
That is why "Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser" is vaguely disturbing right from the opening scenes. We can sense there is something wrong here, and unless we know the life history of Monk we don't know what it is. The music is great, free-spirited and liberating, but in the person of Monk there is a shadow of some kind, a vagueness, a disinclination to connect. The movie never does put a name to Monk's condition, but by the end of the film enough people who loved him have made enough references to it that we know what we need to know: He went gradually and rather stoically mad.
The film’s title is taken from a single composed by Monk and recorded in 1951, which was also the name of an album.
"Straight, No Chaser" is a jazz standard composed by Thelonious Monk. It was first recorded on Monk's Blue Note Sessions in 1951. It has been recorded numerous times by Monk and others and is one of Monk's most covered songs.It is a 12-bar blues in B flat which, like one of his other B blues, "Blue Monk", makes creative use of chromatics in the melody. Miles Davis recorded a famous version on his Milestones album, in which the tune is played in F rather than B flat.Music educator Mark C. Gridley wrote about Monk's composition style: "Monk employed simple compositional devices with very original results. His 'Straight, No Chaser' involves basically only one idea played again and again, each time in a different part of the measure and with a different ending."Carmen McRae recorded a vocal version of the tune in 1988, with words by Sally Swisher. The McRae version was titled "Get It Straight".
Here’s Carmen swinging it live at the Newport Jazz Festival.
The third film discussed by Gabbard isn’t really about Monk, though he is prominently featured; it’s the story behind a classic photograph.
One of the ugly parts of jazz history as it relates to New York City and the musicians, mostly Black, who were part of the scene, was the imposition of “Cabaret Cards” on performers.
WNYC radio covered the story in “Music Decriminalized: The End of ‘Cabaret Cards.’"
New York’s cabaret laws had been on the books since 1927, born in the wanton days of the jazz age, but only really hit their damaging stride in 1943, when all musicians working in New York City were made to carry a “cabaret card” to perform in its nightclubs and bars, a license which could be, and was, snatched away or denied renewal at the slightest offense, effectively blacklisting an artist from performing in the City for years at authority's whim. New York’s cabaret card provisions were intended to be a force in the fight against the City’s criminal element, but the licensing requirement had the effect of undermining New York’s capacity as an incubator of art for decades.
Take for instance jazz great Thelonious Sphere Monk (pictured above), who three times had his cabaret card revoked through the 40s and 50s, coming up for air all too briefly for his famous engagement with John Coltrane at the Five Spot in 1957. Thelonious saw some successes emerge during his intermittent ban, but only in spite of the unduly harsh law - Brilliant Corners, his classic recording from the period and one of the greatest jazz recordings ever made, one that was recently added to the Library of Congress’ esteemed National Recording Registry, was cobbled together with an underprepared makeshift band at a time when he could not legally perform in the City. Only in the 60s did he establish a stable band and commercial success, when he was arguably past his prime. Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and many other famous performers seeking a narcotic muse fell victim to the cabaret card law, but consider too, how many talents were rendered obscure or snuffed out entirely by the law’s Draconian demands. Frank Sinatra, in an act of kind solidarity with his fellow artists (and perhaps some underworld friends), famously refused to perform in New York during at least part of the law’s damaging run.
This NPR program, “The Law Police Used To Keep Musicians Of Color Off Stage | JAZZ NIGHT IN AMERICA” looks at the history, discussing what happened to Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday, and Monk.
Jazz musicians have always faced systems of discrimination in America. One insidious example was the cabaret card, a form of identification required for any musician to work in a New York nightclub from 1940 to 1967. The New York Police Department administered these licenses and revoked them for any minor infraction. As a result, some of the biggest names in the music at the time, like Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, lost their right to work at a crucial points in their careers. In this Jazz Night in America video short, we trace the history of the cabaret card starting with its racist origins and its toll on the music, and we'll reflect on what might have been. --COLIN MARSHALL
Thankfully, we’ve gone beyond the days where dancing and music were made illegal and used as racist tools to suppress Black music. We still haven’t outgrown verbal attacks on Black folks for dancing, though. (We see you, Peggy Noonan.)
While researching this story, I found a piece of news I’d missed when it came out three years ago:
I wonder what happened to this idea, and if we could help it along?
As we move forward, hopefully to a victory at the polls this week, it’s time for me to move this series on to another instrument. Help me decide where to go next—trumpeters, saxophonists, drummers, or bassists?
If we win Pennsylvania, Trump loses—which is why Republicans are doing all they can to suppress the vote. Pennsylvania is the crucial battleground state where we need the most volunteers. Click to sign up for virtual phonebanking, textbanking and other activities at Mobilize America here.