Monk, ThelonioUS (Sphere)

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Monk, ThelonioUS (Sphere)

Monk, ThelonioUS (Sphere), brilliant jazz pianist and bold and witty composer, father of T.S. Monk; b. Rocky Mount, N.C., Oct. 10, 1917; d. Englewood, N.J., Feb. 17, 1982. His first name is often misspelled “The-lonius”; the birth certificate says “Thelious Junior Monk” but this is probably an error for “Thelonious Monk Jr.” His family moved to N.Y. when he was four, living on W. 63rd St.; later he attended the selective public Stuyvesant H.S., an indication that he must have been a good student. He began playing piano at age of 11; he accompanied his mother’s singing at the local Baptist church. In the late 1930s, he performed with a travelling evangelist’s show and also gigged in and around N.Y., working with Keg Purnell’s quartet (c. 1939) prior to becoming house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem.

He was first recorded playing at Minton’s in 1941 with Charlie Christian and Kenny Clarke. Monk also played with Don Byas, Roy Eldridge, and Helen Humes at Minton’s; Cootie Williams recorded his composition “Round Midnight” that same year. After working with Kenny Clarke’s small band at Kelly’s Stable, N.Y. (late 1942), he played briefly with Lucky Millinder and Kermit “Scotty” Scott at Minton’s (early 1943) and with Cootie Williams and Coleman Hawkins (1944, including his studio recording debut). Monk played with the Gillespie big band at the Spotlite (March-April 1946) and recorded for Blue Note under his own name beginning in 1947; he also led a quartet with Idrees Sulieman of which one broadcast survives, from 1948; the group also played at Minton’s. The first recordings of many of his originals were the critical documents that began to make people aware of him.

Monk also recorded with Charlie Parker (1950) and Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins (both 1954). Because of the “cabaret card” law then in force, Monk was not able to undertake club engagements in N.Y. from 1951–57, after he was busted for drug possession. However, he kept active playing at small clubs around N.Y., at the Blue Note (Phil.) in October 1952, the Bee Hive in Chicago in 1955, at the Hi-Hat in Boston on a few occasions between 1949 and 1955, and reportedly in Baltimore, and visited Paris in 1954 where he recorded a solo album. On July 1957, he began an engagement at the Five Spot that lasted, with a few breaks, until the end of the year. On July 18 or 19, he added John Coltrane to his trio and this quartet created a sensation that boosted the careers of both men. Monk toured from then on, usually with his own quartet. He used Johnny Griffin during 1958; in October 1958 at the Five Spot, he commenced a long association with Charlie Rouse. He appeared with big bands in special concerts in 1959 at Town Hall and at Randall’s Island of N.Y.; in December 1963 he appeared at Philharmonic Hall and 1964 at Carnegie Hall, with arrangements from Hall Overton because Monk did not orchestrate for big band. Steve Lacy was added for gigs in 1960, including three weeks opposite Coltrane at the Jazz Gallery in Manhattan in June-July.

By this time Monk was one of the best known and best selling artists in jazz. His name was invoked on TV in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis to signify hipness. He toured Europe several times and visited Japan and Mexico, with television appearances in Japan (1963), Norway (1966), and France (1969). The latter includes a short interview that illustrates why he was considered impossible in such situations—he appears distracted, perhaps passively hostile to the whole enterprise and gives the shortest of answers. Columbia recorded him beginning in 1962, and he was a Time magazine cover subject in 1964. He toured Europe with an octet (his quartet plus Griffin, Phil Woods, Ray Copeland, and Jimmy Cleveland) as part of a George Wein package tour in 1967. In 1971 and 1972, he toured world with The Giants of Jazz with Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, Kai Winding, Al McKibbon, and Blakey. Around this time, he also appeared with Blakey in Brooklyn.

Monk suffered from poor health and lived in seclusion from 1972, emerging only for special events. He was receiving Lithium treatment for manic depression at Gracie Square Hospital, a condition that was likely worsened by years of drug use that included heroin, amphetamines, and alcohol. In 1974, he performed with the N.Y. Jazz Repertory Company at Carnegie Hall, substituting for Barry Harris by making a surprise appearance just before the concert started. He appeared with a quartet at Newport, N.Y. in 1975 and at Carnegie Hall in 1976, his last public appearance. His activities were restricted in the late 1970s by immobility due apparently to increasing mental illness. He died at Englewood Hospital, where he spent the last 12 days of his life after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.

His work was recorded by others before he became accepted as a leader and pianist in his own right. Seemingly influenced by Ellington, James P. Johnson, and perhaps Earl Hines, he in turn influenced Randy Weston, Elmo Hope, Mal Waldron, Herbie Nichols, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, and many others, as well as non-pianists and composers such as Rollins, Coltrane, and Steve Lacy. Thelonious Monk’s compositions are among the most played in jazz and have been the subject of an ever increasing number of tribute albums and concerts; his best known piece is probably the ballad “Round Midnight.” He played piano with a hard attack and penchant for short, punchy phrases, with voicings that were sometimes disarmingly basic and spare and at others incorporated jangling dissonant notes. As a pianist he is sometimes underestimated because he doesn’t play quick flowing lines in the mainstream tradition.

His compositions and playing shared a concern with developing and building motive ideas while swinging irresistibly. “Well You Needn’t” and “I Mean You” are even named in “vocalese” fashion after the sound of their main motives. His solos on the same tunes, live in Paris in 1961, are playful, expressive, and powerfully swinging. When he comps behind the soloist (often he chooses not to) he creates distinctive and driving riffs, something none of the tributes have picked up on. As a composer he sometimes worked with existing chord progressions (”Just You, Just Me” “Evidence,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Bright Mississippi,” many blues pieces), and his performances of standards were unforgettable, but he often came up with unique and challenging original sequences. He also created highly unusual forms in such pieces as “Boo Boo’s Birthday,” and explored virtuosity in such dazzling lines as “Trinkle, Tinkle,” “Gallop’s Gallop,” and “Four in One.” Some pieces are named for family and friends; “Crépuscule with Nellie” (his wife), “Jackie-ing” (for his oldest niece, the first young person in the family to hang out in the clubs), “In Walked Bud” (for Powell), “Pannonica” (for the Nica Rothschild de Koenigswarter, a steady friend and supporter since the early 1950s).

As early as 1963, Steve Lacy ran a quartet whose main mission was to perform Monk’s tunes. Thelonious was a group that Buell Neidlinger ran. The group Sphere, with Rouse, played many Monk tunes as well as others, and was active from 1981 or 1982, and in 1984 an all-star lineup of jazz and rock players cut “That’s The Way I Feel Now”; numerous tributes have followed. The Beethoven Society became interested in Monk and with T.S. Jr. founded the Thelonious Monk Inst. which in the early 1990s began the first international jazz competition; it has helped launch the careers of Joshua Redman, Jackie Terrason, and others. The cul-de-sac on 63rd St. has been renamed “Thelonious Sphere Monk Circle.” He was the subject of the documentaries “Straight No Chaser” (with much performance footage), “It’s Monk’s Time” (concert tribute), and “Thelonious Monk, American Composer.”


More Genius (1947); Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1 (1947); Complete Genius (1947); Complete Blue Note Recordings (1947); Vibes Are On (1948); Thelonious Monk/Milt Jackson (1948); Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 2 (1951); Thelonious Monk Trio (1952); Monk’s Moods (1952); High Priest (1952); Blue Monk, Vol. 2 (1952); Work (1953); We See (1953); Monk (1953); Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins (1954); Thelonious Monk (1954); Blue Monk, Vol. 1 (1954); Pure Monk (1955); Plays Duke Ellington (1955); Unique Thelonious Monk (1956); Brilliant Corners (1956); Brilliance (1956); Thelonious with John Coltrane (1957); Thelonious Himself (1957); Round Midnight (1957); N.Y. with Johnny Griffin (1957); Mulligan Meets Monk (1957); Monk’s Music (1957); Thelonious in Action: Recorded (1958); Blues Five Spot (1958); Discovery! at the Five Spot (1958); Thelonious Monk Orch. at Town Hall (1959); In Person (1959); Five by Monk by Five (1959); Evidence (1959); Alone in San Francisco (1959); Thelonious Monk Quartet Plus Two (1960); At the Blackhawk (1960); Two Hours with Thelonious Monk (1961); April in Paris (1961); Thelonious Monk in Italy (1961); Monk in Italy (1961); Monk in France (1961); Monk in Bern (1961); Live in Stockholm (1961); First European Concert (1961); Monk’s Dream (1962); Criss-Cross (1962); Always Know (1962); Tokyo Concerts (1963); Thelonious Monk 1963 in Japan (1963); Mysterioso (1963); Live at the Village Gate (1963); Big Band and Quartet in Concert (1963); Solo Monk (1964); Live in Paris at the Alhambra (1964); Live at the Jazz Workshop (1964); Live at the It Club (1964); It’s Monk’s Time (1964); Olympia (1965); Straight, No Chaser (1966); Live in Switzerland (1966); Underground (1967); On Tour in Europe (1967); Nonet: Live! (1967); Monk’s Blues (1968); Something in Blue (1971); Ate 7 Loi* (1971); Lomiorc Collection, Vol. 1-3 (1971).


N. Hentoff, Thelonious Monk (N.Y., 1961); S. Isacoff, Jazz Masters: Thelonious Monk (N.Y., 1978); L. Bijl and E Conte, Monk on Record: A Discography of Thelonious Monk (Amsterdam, 1982); T. Fitterling, Thelonious Monk: Sein Leben, seine Musik, seine Schallplatten [Thelonious Monk: His Life and MusicJ (Waakirchen, Germany, 1987; rev. English edition, 1996); Y. Buin, Thelonious Monk (Paris, 1988); L. Wilde, Monk (Paris, 1996); L. Gourse, Straight, No Chaser: The Life and Genius of T. M. (N.Y., 1997); C. Raschka, Mysterious Thelonious (N.Y., 1997).

—Lewis Porter/Peter Keepnews