Thelonious Monk, High Priest of Bebop

Thelonious Monk
Wed, 1917-10-10

Thelonious Monk was born on this date in 1917. He was an African American jazz pianist and musical genius.

Monk was from Rocky Mount, NC, and moved with his family to New York when he was five. In his preteen years, he took piano lessons and later played house parties and church revivals. Teddy Wilson and stride piano players influenced him. In the early 1940s, he frequently gigged in New York, scoring his most important gig with Coleman Hawkins. He later played with Dizzy Gillespie and formed his own band in 1947, using the talents of such players as Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, and Milt Jackson. Other band members over the years included saxophonists John Coltrane and Charlie Rouse.

While Monk made his recording debut with Blue Note in 1947, it was during his long association with the Riverside label and co-owner Orrin Keepnews, that he made his mark on the jazz world. In the ‘60s, he recorded widely with Columbia. Each of Monk's albums proved to be an adventure in listening. Though he reinterpreted many of his best-known and favorite pieces including "'Round Midnight," "Straight, No Chaser," "Ruby, My Dear," and "Epistrophy" on his later recordings. Each visit was so charged with imaginative impulses that his music teemed with surprises, never sinking to the level of bland predictability.

During his early days as a bandleader, he was ordained the High Priest of Bebop. Monk's radical playing was more driven by stride, blues, and swing influences than by bop. While he gained recognition from his musical peers and eventually the record-buying public, Monk was often misunderstood and unfairly castigated as a neurotic for his idiosyncratic behavior and newfangled tunes.

In his final years, Monk was nearly invisible. His last recording was the 1971 Black Lion sessions and one of his last appearances took place at the 1974 Newport Jazz Festival. Although when he died in 1982 he was almost forgotten, his music in subsequent years became extremely popular as young jazz upstarts began to comprehend the wit, poetry, and genius in his compositions.

Jazz: A History of the New York Scene
Samuel Charters and Leonard Kunstadt
(Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y., 1962) p.73

Jazz People
by Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, New York
Copyright 1976
ISBN 0-8109-1152-3

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Monk, Thelonious