Rouse, Charlie , tenor saxophonist for Thelonious Monk; b. Washington, D.C., April 6, 1924; d. Seattle, Wash., Nov. 30, 1988. For more than a decade, he augmented Monk’s tricky tunes with a brand of bop that both understated and expanded what the iconoclastic composer was trying to say; and yet he remained his own man, recording frequently before, during, and after his time with Monk and owing only a little stylistically to his longtime employer.
He started out in his early 20s with stints in Billy Eckstine’s and Dizzy Gillespie’s bands, which gave him a healthy dose of the classic bebop style, which he further explored while working with Tadd Dameron and Fats Navarro. However, a few years later he went in a whole other direction when he was hired to replace his idol, Ben Webster, in Duke Ellington’s band in 1949. A missing birth certificate, however, prevented him from acquiring a passport to tour Europe, thus ending his Ellington gig. He easily found other work, though, playing with Count Basie, Clifford Brown, Bennie Green, and Oscar Pettiford. During the late 1950s he teamed up with French horn player Julius Watkins to form the group Les Jazz Modes. They were picked up by Atlantic Records in 1957 after a few releases on the small independent Dawn label. His next major project would be long-lasting and an absolute musical classic: serving as second-hand man in Monk’s quartet. He took to Monk’s music so readily because it allowed him to use both his bop and Ellington experience at the same time, mixing improvisational wit with unusually tuneful melodies. Their collaboration lasted from 1959 to 1970, including many essential recordings for both Riverside and Columbia. Beginning in 1960, he would occasionally make his own records, many of which feature neither Monk compositions nor even Monkish playing; consequently, these recordings clearly demonstrate his own identifiable style. Yet, it is initially shocking to hear him play with a more traditional pianist. Ultimately, it is his connection with Monk for which he will be forever remembered, and he was always eager to celebrate the man he played with for so many years. In 1980, along with Kenny Barron, Buster Williams, and former Monk drummer Ben Riley, he formed the group Sphere, initially as a Monk tribute band, although they eventually included originals and other standards in their repertoire, including an album’s worth of Charlie Parker tunes. And three of his final projects exemplify the connection he had with Monk’s music: first, a duet with the ultimate Monk cheerleader, Steve Lacy, on “Ask Me Now,” included as part of producer Hal Willner’s 1984 Monk tribute collection That’s the Way I Feel Now, second, his participation on Carmen McRae’s beautiful 1988 set Carmen Sings Monk, and finally, performing as guest of honor at a posthumous Monk birthday celebration (released on CD as Epistrophy) just weeks before his own death from lung cancer in 1988.
He played a derivation of hard bop that featured a restraint unusual for most tenor players at the time. Never relying on speed, he soloed with patience and deliberation, careful to never lose sight of the melody. He was fully capable of cooking on the up-tempo tunes, as well as offering up breathy, rich sounds on ballads. All of these traits, along with a rhythmic savviness and overall consistency, made him such a valuable contributor to Monk’s quartets.
Unsung Hero (1960); Takin’ Care of Business (1960); Thelonious Monk: Criss-Cross (1963); Two Is One (1974); Cinnamon Flower (1977); Moment’s Notice (1978); The Upper Manhattan Jazz Society (1981); Four in One (1982); Flight Path (1983); Social Call (1984); Pumpkins Delight (1986); Sphere (1987); On Tour (1987); Live at the Umbria Jazz (1988); Sphere: Bird Songs (1988); Epistrophy (1989); Four for All (1990); Les Jazz Modes (1995).
—Eric J. Lawrence