Thelonious Sphere Monk was one of the most influential pianists in jazz history, and though he is considered a pioneer of the bebop style, his compositions have had an impact on a wide number of musical genres.
Monk had an unconventional approach to the piano and his compositions are filled with angular melodic twists and dissonant harmonies, and although his style was not widely appreciated in his time, later generations of musicians caught up to his unique approach and originality. Monk’s unusual approach to harmony and rhythm gives his music a unique asymmetry that continues to be a heavy influence on the contemporary music scene.
Thelonious Monk worked for several major labels – most famously Blue Note -and his recordings from this time with are now hailed as some of his greatest works. He made several overseas tours and recorded his first album for Vogue in Paris. He later worked with Riverside and gained much critical acclaim and also recorded his second solo album, Thelonious Monk Alone, which received high critical acclaim.
Monk went on to record for Columbia Records, one of the biggest record labels in the world, and he was the third jazz musician in history to be on the cover of Time Magazine. He has more than seventy compositions that are considered classics and he has received numerous awards for his unforgettable contribution to music.
A genuine master of American music, Thelonious Monk’s compositions reflect the core of jazz music and are enjoyed and performed by not only jazz artists but people from many different genres of music. Monk enjoyed playing with some of the best known artists of his own time, including Miles Davis, Larry Gales, Dizzy Gillespie and Steve Lacy. Many of his compositions have become jazz standards, including ‘Well, You Needn’t,’ ‘Blue Monk’ and ‘Round Midnight.’
Thelonious Monk was born on October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He was only four years old when his parents moved and settled in New York City, where Monk spent most of his life playing and performing.
Monk started taking piano lessons when he was young and by the time he turned thirteen he had become so good at playing that he won the weekly amateur contest at the Apollo Theater so frequently that the club banned him from taking part in the contest. He continued playing passionately and eventually at the age of seventeen, he dropped out of high school to pursue his musical career.
Monk joined the house band at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem at the age of nineteen and along with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and some other players he invented the jazz style that came to be known as bebop. Art Tatum influenced many of Monk’s otherwise original and unique harmonic ideas and Round Midnight was one of the compositions that gave birth to the musical ideas developed there by these legendary soloists.
The first known recording made by Thelonious Monk was in 1941, while working as a member of the Coleman Hawkins’s Quartet. The early period of Monk’s musical career is obscure and mostly overshadowed by the negative acclaim he received from the critics of his time. He didn’t catch a break until 1947 when he was hired by Blue Note and made five recordings including Criss Cross and Evidence, which are generally regarded as his first works that emphasize his ‘true’ jazz style of unusual repetitions and dissonant sounds.
Later in 1947, Monk married Nellie Smith and had two children with her. He also signed a contract with Prestige Records, which yielded his famous number Bags’ Groove with Miles Davis, and is sometimes considered one of his finest piano solo ever. Prestige, however soon lost interest in him and Monk went over to Riverside Recordings. This turned out to be the break he had been waiting for as Monk then recorded several of his most famous albums: Brilliant Corners, Thelonious Himself and Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, which finally won him the acclaim he had long been waiting for and highly deserved.
Thelonious Monk has become one of those legends that are understood and appreciated for their greatness generations after their own time. For his efforts, Monk received numerous awards during his lifetime, and he continues to be honored posthumously to date. His work has been immortalized by The Smithsonian Institution with an archive of his music. There is a U.S. Postal Service stamp issued in his honor, and a documentary on Thelonious Monk’s life named “Straight, No Chaser”, was released with much fanfare.
Additionally, The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz was founded to honor his name and work, and to remember the music to which Monk dedicated his life. In 1993, he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2006, Monk was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation.
Monk lead a retired life for the last six years of his life, and was diagnosed with an unknown mental illness, but it was really the fatigue and exhaustion of a lifetime of playing and touring that stopped Monk in the end. Thelonious Sphere Monk passed away on February 17, 1982.
The world will always remember him for the genius that he was. His contributions altered the face of jazz and continue to have a wide impact today.
Thelonious Monk was an artist with a strong vision; his playing was so unique and independent that many musicians of his time had a hard time keeping up with him. Many Bebop players of Monk’s era played fast and smooth rhythms, maximizing the number of notes; meanwhile, Monk played his pieces in a way that outlined a minimal number of notes, finding undue space and simplicity.
Unlike his close friend and fellow pianist Bud Powel, Monk played bebop roughly and angularly. This could be the reason why it almost took a generation for Monk’s more unorthodox pieces to be understood and to become a part of the standard jazz scene.
Despite their seemingly simple qualities, each of Monk’s compositions had a personality that was difficult for a performer to bring out. Monk was an absolute master of the AABA form and some of his all-time hits include Ask Me Now, Little Rootie Tootie, Evidence, Rhythm-A-Ning, and Well You Needn’t.
Because of his eccentricity in both his music and his personal life, Monk usually made the news more due to his peculiar habits than for his music. Critics of his time disapproved of him and criticized him for having no set boundaries between real talk and humor in his statements. He was also put down for dressing unusually and wearing strange eyeglasses and hats.
It is mostly acknowledged that Monk’s dancing was as great as his playing and composing, which he did during performing. He would just get up and start dancing while the rest of the band performed, and when asked why he did that he would reply that he got tired of sitting at the piano. This Monkish dance was one of the reasons why the media tended to report more about his bizarre habits than his musical acclamations.
Videos and Recordings
Thelonious Monk plays Round Midnight: