Thelonious Sphere Monk

Jul 20th, 2011 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
Share Button

Thelonious Sphere Monk1917 – 1982  Thelonious Monk was a giant of the American jazz scene. His angular playing, odd compositions, use of space and silence, and uncompromising integrity were essential elements in the creation of the “Bebop” style. He left a legacy of recordings and compositions that show the birth of a whole new era in jazz, and which have become standards in their own right.

A Prodigy is Born

Monk was born on October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. At the age of four, he moved with his mother and two siblings to New York City. By the time he was nine, Monk was a prodigy who had shifted from trumpet to piano, and began private lessons on that instrument. He played rent parties, church ceremonies, and amateur competitions in his teens, and is said to have won the famous “Amateur Hour” at the Harlem’s Apollo Theater so many times that he was barred from further competition.

Monk was an excellent student in general, and was accepted to the distinguished Peter Stuyvesant High School in New York, but dropped out at the end of sophomore year to focus on his true passion, music. He toured for two years with a traveling faith healer and evangelist, and upon his return to New York he started his own quartet, playing local clubs and bars. There is some evidence that he studied briefly at Juilliard.

In 1941, Monk was hired as house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. Minton’s was one of several clubs hosting after-hours jam sessions for avant garde musicians. The so-called “Bebop Revolution” emerged from this cauldron, where new ideas were forged by such luminaries as Oscar Pettiford, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, and Bud Powell. Monk’s emerging style, combining elements of classic jazz stride piano in his left hand with a new rhythmic and melodic approach in his right, had a strong influence. Dubbed the “High Priest of Bebop” by some critics, Monk composed several trademark tunes during this period, including “Round Midnight,” “52nd Street Theme,” “I Mean You,” and “Epistrophy.”

Monk’s sound, however, was ahead of its time. He was largely unacknowledged during the 1940s and into the following decade. Tenor sax legend Coleman Hawkins, who was of the old school, first hired Monk to record and for a long-term performing engagement in 1944. Other gigs of that era included bands led by Skippy Williams and Kenny Clarke. But the majority of critics and many of his peers were uncomprehending or hostile; some even thought Monk was insane. In 1947, the jazz label Blue Note gave Monk his first recording contract. He would record with the label until the early 1950s with such exceptional side-men as Art Blakey, Kenny Dorham, and Max Roach. These recordings, now regarded as among Monk’s finest, were commercially unsuccessful and did little to sway critical opinion.

From Misfortune to Fame

Monk’s 1947 marriage to his long-time love Nellie Smith, and the birth of their son Thelonious, Jr. in 1949, exacerbated the financial difficulties of his iconoclastic career. The situation worsened in 1951, when he was deprived of his Cabaret Card (a license to perform in certain clubs in New York City) on an unjust narcotics charge. He made do with what work he could find, while also recording for the Prestige label from 1952 to 1954. These recordings featured classic performances with such rising stars as Milt Jackson, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis. The birth of Monk’s daughter Barbara in 1953 was followed by his first trans-Atlantic gig, to the Paris Jazz Festival, where he recorded a solo album for the Vogue label. A growing cadre of aficionados was beginning to appreciate Monk as one of the most innovative pianists of his time.

Monk signed with the new Riverside label in 1955, under journalist turned producer Orrin Keepnews. Keepnews perceived that Monk could reach a larger audience, and had him record an album of Duke Ellington classics followed by an album of jazz standards. It worked perfectly, and enthusiastic audiences went on to appreciate Monk’s subsequent recordings of original material. Fortuitously, the influential jazz patroness Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter helped Monk to retrieve his Cabaret Card in 1957, leading to a steady gig at the popular Five Spot Café with rising tenor star John Coltrane and others. Late-1950s recordings with Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, and Gerry Mulligan met with critical and popular success, and conservatory students began studying Monk’s compositional techniques. He led a successful big band concert in 1959 at New York’s Town Hall.

To many, Monk could seem introspective while off the bandstand and unpredictable while on. But he was a visionary artist who was also a devoted family man, and who spent non-working hours at home whenever possible, taking the time to compose some of his delightfully dissonant songs for his children. Monk formed a quartet which toured Europe in 1961 and Japan in 1963. He signed with Columbia Records, one of the world’s largest labels, in 1962. His big band played Lincoln Center and the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1963. Monk became only the third jazz musician in history to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine in February 1964.

After several successful albums with Columbia, including “Monk’s Dream,” “Underground,” and “Straight, No Chaser,” the label shifted its focus to a rock audience. A decline in Monk’s health forced him to reduce his schedule. After a failed album and the loss of key band personnel, Columbia ended the relationship in 1972. Monk performed even less over the following years, with the notable exception of the “Giants of Jazz” all-star world tour in 1972. His last appearance was in 1976, after which he ceased playing. Monk suffered a stroke on February 5, 1982 and died on February 17th of that year, leaving over 70 compositions. A notable documentary film about his life and work, “Straight, No Chaser,” was made posthumously, and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz continues to promote jazz and support young musicians in his honor.


Leave a Comment