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Thelonious Monk

 

 

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        Thelonious Monk is my favorite of all pianist. He was certainly one of the most unique pianist and composers in jazz history, defining "eccentric."  He was the house pianist at Minton's Playhouse jazz club in Harlem and along with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, and Charlie Christian, invented the style known as bebop.  Monk was known as "the high priest of bop."  However, he didn't catch on in popularity as quickly as the others.   His style was far different.  He used unconventional chords in his music.   He also played sparsely, had a unique sense of rhythm, and used empty spaces effectively in his music.  His composing reflected this as well.  It is hard to describe his music to someone who has never heard it.  One critic said that Monk's music was "like missing the bottom step in the dark."  ... interesting.   John Coltrane said (playing with Monk) that if you (soloist) missed a chord change, it was "like falling into an empty elevator shaft."   His music is very unique and very cool, though.  It's unlike anything you've ever heard, and it seems to strike a chord within those who I have played his music for.  While his peers recognized his genius, it took the public about 10-15 years to do so.  He didn't compose a large body of work, about 60-70 songs, but many of his songs are jazz standards, which includes, but is certainly not limited to, Ruby my dear, Well you needn't, Round Midnight (one of my all-time favorite songs!), Mysterioso, Monk's Dream, Blue Monk, Trinkle, Tinkle, Pannonica, and Straight, No Chaser.  Even when he did a conventional popular song, such as April in Paris, or Body and Soul, he would re-write the chords, and put his own unique fingerprint on it.  Monk has been called "the first great jazz composer after Duke Ellington."  When asked why he didn't write more, he said that he was going to keep playing his songs until people heard them.   Besides his compositions, Monk also influenced the bebop revolution through his look:  His bohemian appearance and an affection for shades and eccentric hats did much to define the postwar hipster.

        After playing at Minton's, in 1943, he joined Coleman Hawkins.  He was falsely imprisoned on a drug offense, and was subsequently banned from the New York clubs until the mid 1950s.  He and John Coltrane played a legendary 6 month stint at New York's Five Spot Cafe in 1957.   Coltrane credits Monk for influencing and helping him broaden his horizons as a player.  He said that he'd ask Monk about different theories, and Monk would show him the answers at the piano.  Because of the twists and turns and complexity of Monk's music, many saxophone players found him difficult to work with.  However, Coltrane, Steve Lacy, and Charlie Rouse were 3 notable players who worked well with Monk.  Monk formed a quarter, that became one of his more stable groups, in 1959, and featured Rouse on saxophone.

        Monk was certainly his own man.  He once said, "I say, play your own way.  Don't play what the public want--you play what you want and let the public pick up on what you (sic) doing--even if does take them fifteen, twenty years."  The idiosyncrasies of his music were rooted in the quirks in his character.  He was an odd man who seldom spoke, and when he did, it was often enigmatic.  He often seemed to walk a fine line between sanity and madness.   In the Seventies, he became seriously ill, and made few appearances before his death in 1982.  Clint Eastwood produced an excellent documentary on Monk called Straight, No Chaser shortly after Monk died, which features many film clips found of Monk playing, interviewing, etc.


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Thelonious Monk

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