“Everything I play is different, different melody, different harmony, different structure. Each piece is different from the other. . . . when the song tells a story, when it gets a certain sound, then it’s through . . . completed.” Succint self-assessment from the innovative and incomparable jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, who died today in 1982.
Jazz pianist Thelonious Monk died at the age of 64, from the effects of a stroke suffered some days earlier. Born in North Carolina, Monk grew up with his family in New York City and after an early flirtation with the trumpet received piano instruction from the age of nine – although he later claimed to be self taught.
By 1941 he was appearing regularly in local venues and was recruited by drummer Kenny Clarke for the house band at Harlem nightclub, Minton’s Playhouse. That engagement placed Monk at the epicentre of the be-bop revolution, as jazz was radically refashioned by the likes of Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell.
More sonically adventurous and harmonically daring than many of his contemporaries, Monk tore up the handbook of conventional thinking and wasn’t universally popular with fans or musicians – something that his own demeanour hardly improved (it’s claimed that his eccentricities would be exaggerated in later years, although other accounts speak of mood swings that hinted at mental health issues).
Recording with tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, Monk was signed up by Blue Note and would record a total of 32 released tracks in six sessions between October 1947 and May 1952 – along with sessions for stable mates including vibraphone player Milt Jackson. However they made little impact in terms of sales and Monk joined the Prestige label, later recording for bothVogue and Riverside.
The latter proved to be the most successful phase of his career, as a sweep of album releases chimed with the listening public’s broadening horizons – the radical “Brilliant Corners” following up earlier releases composed of jazz standards. A live residency at Five Spot Café with John Coltrane on tenor saxophone in 1957 was followed by collaborations with Johnny Griffin, Art Blakey and Gerry Mulligan
By 1964 he’d joined Columbia and found himself on the cover of Time Magazine (the latest in an illustrious lineup that comprised at that time of Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington. A further raft of critically-acclaimed albums including “Monks Dream” and “Straight No Chaser” followed, but changing trends and Monk’s deteriorating health saw him dropped in 1972.
Continuing to play live dates with his own band that now included Thelonious, Monk Jr. on drums, he also toured with the then-recently-convened “Giants of Jazz” group, including former sparring partners Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey. Declining health saw Monk cease public performance in July of 1976 and he passed away in 1982. His name lives on in The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, a teaching facility whose jazz musician of the year competition has launched the careers of various aspiring jazz talents.
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And here’s some footage of Monk in action: