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Monk, Thelonious Sphere

MONK, Thelonious Sphere

(b. 10 October 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina; d. 17 February 1982 in Englewood, New Jersey), jazz composer and pianist, discovered by the public during the 1960s, known for his innovative rhythm, chord voicing, melody, and distinctive piano style.

Monk was born in North Carolina, but his mother, Barbara Batts, a civil service worker, left his father, Thelonious Monk, Sr., a manual laborer, when her three children were young and relocated to New York City. The family moved into a two-room apartment in Manhattan's San Juan Hill section. Monk lived at that apartment for most of his life, first with his mother, and then, when he married in 1947, with his wife, Nellie Smith, and their two children, until the building was demolished. Their son, Thelonious Monk, Jr. (T. S. Monk), is a drummer and head of the Thelonious Monk Institute; their daughter Barbara's early death from cancer cut short her promising career in the arts.

Monk attended Public School 141 and Peter Stuyvesant High, where he excelled in physics and math, but he dropped out at sixteen years of age during his sophomore year. He was only five years old when he first began playing the piano, and eleven when he started taking lessons. He eventually began entertaining at Harlem rent parties, diverse events at which people would raise money to pay their rent. He also accompanied his mother in church solos, led a neighborhood trio, spent two years touring in a quartet with an evangelist, and studied briefly at the Julliard School of Music.

As a child, Monk spent time listening to jazz on the radio. During his teenage years, his influences were Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Earl Hines, and especially James P. Johnson, a neighborhood jazz hero. When Art Tatum moved to New York in 1932, Monk described him as "the greatest pianist I had ever heard."

Monk did not serve in the armed forces during World War II, as he had been classified as physically unfit for duty. He instead spent the decade developing his style—he played with the Coleman Hawkins sextet and the Dizzy Gillespie band—and recording some of the most important jazz compositions of the twentieth century. From 1947 to 1952 he recorded such works as "'Round Midnight," "Ruby, My Dear," "Straight, No Chaser," "Epistrophy," and several other jazz classics for Blue Note Records.

Beginning in the 1940s Monk continued writing instrumentation influenced by the pianist Teddy Wilson and the Harlem "stride" tradition (a single note on the first and third beats of the bar, a chord on the second and fourth). His early moniker was "High Priest of Bebop," but his musical creativity stretched beyond bop to provocative chording and strident voicing. John Coltrane said, "Playing with Monk is sometimes like walking into an empty elevator shaft."

Following an erroneous arrest on a narcotics charge in 1951, Monk was barred from playing in New York nightclubs for six years, but he continued recording and performing in various venues. While the majority of the innovations for which Monk is famous occurred prior to the 1960s, he was professionally active throughout the decade. In fact, the 1960s is the time when Monk finally became famous. In 1957 Monk led a seven-month engagement at the Five Spot. His quartet included the jazz newcomer Coltrane; from this experience came a legendary album, Monk with Coltrane, released in 1957. Their association was short-lived, however. By the time of their appearance at Town Hall in 1959, Monk had begun working with his lifelong associate and saxophonist Charlie Rouse, who understood Monk's stylistic nuances and worked with him through 1970. Known for his dry humor, Monk once told his band, "All ways know, always night, all ways know—and dig the way I say 'all ways.' "

From 1955 to 1961 Monk recorded for the Riverside label. His albums Monk in Italy and April in Paris/Live, both released in 1961, were live recordings from his European tour that same year. His success and growing fame led to a 1962 contract with Columbia Records. In 1963 he performed at Lincoln Center and toured Japan; his concert in Tokyo was memorialized in a double album. Monk also was elected to the Down Beat Hall of Fame that year. In 1964, the year his career reached its apex, he appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival and was the subject of an extensive cover story in Time magazine. He toured Europe again in 1967.

Monk's piano performances during the 1960s were legendary. He dominated the stage, a tall, rugged, 200-pound man who wore assorted eccentric hats and left the piano bench during riffs to shuffle across the stage in a "Monkish" manner. Monk deviated from the stride with a marked ability to express rhythmic spontaneity. His lively rubato and varied articulation provided an element of surprise to his listeners. Monk reinterpreted his best-known tunes in the 1960s, including "Round About Midnight," "Straight, No Chaser," "Ruby, My Dear," and "Epistrophy," and became noted for his instrumental masterpieces "Evidence," "Misterioso," and "Criss Cross." His compositions, which were associated with harmonic clusters and dissonance, demanded attention from both listeners and performers.

Jazz did not exist in isolation from the turmoil that marked the 1960s. During this period, when other musical genres overshadowed jazz, there was a dearth of work opportunity. Jazz, an art form in transition, emphasized "free" jazz. Competing musicians in the country's twenty or so clubs often resented artists who got gigs. Caught in racial bias, which contributed to resentment, African-American musicians accused whites of lacking talent. In contrast, white musicians complained of "Crow Jim" (a phrase meant to suggest reverse prejudice) when African Americans got work.

Unaffected by racial fervor, Monk said, "My music is not a social comment on discrimination or poverty or the like. I would have written the same way even if I had not been a Negro." His manager Harry Colomby quoted Monk as saying, "When I was a kid, some of the guys would try to get me to hate white people for what they've been doing to Negroes, and for a while I tried real hard. But every time I got to hating them, some white guy would come along and mess the whole thing up." Monk was exceptional in the 1960s. He continued writing and performing his music and lacked resentment toward his fellow artists. It was his time to shine in the sun, but he was saddened by the jealousies he felt all around him. At one point Monk quietly allowed, "I was friends to lots of musicians, but looks like they weren't friends to me."

When Monk was not on stage, he relaxed at home with Nellie—what he called "layin' dead." Their two-room apartment featured a Steinway baby grand piano by the sink, a small kitchen table, and a crowded living room and bedroom. Monk was clothes conscious. Before evening performances, Nellie shuffled through assorted piles to help him dress in proper suits and silk shirts. Monk reported that he once had been asked to pose in a monk's habit, on a pulpit, holding a glass of whiskey. He said no with wry humor, "Monks don't even stand in pulpits."

Having reached his musical apex in 1964, Monk retired from concert tours and recording in the 1970s. He suffered from chronic liver damage brought about by years of drugs and drinking and spent his final years in Weehawken, New Jersey, with Nellie, or in the home of his patron, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage and is buried in Ferncliffe Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

Although Monk's albums had been in the marketplace for twenty years, it was not until the 1960s that the general jazz audience took notice. Even within the jazz milieu, his piano style, with its phrasing, cadences, and dissonant chords, was often puzzling to critical ears. Monk was impressive as a pianist but even more significant as a composer. The jazz critic Martin Williams hailed him as the greatest composer since Duke Ellington. Andre Hodeir compared Monk with Gerry Mulligan and Charley Parker, writing, "Only in Monk's music do asymmetry and discontinuity enhance one another, thereby assuming their full, symbiotic significance." Monk described his music more tersely: "All you're supposed to do is lay down the sounds and let the people pick up on them. If you ain't doing that, you just ain't a musician." The decade of the 1960s was rife with change. In his musical genius, Monk exemplified that mood and came into his own as a public figure, acknowledged as the greatest jazz composer of his generation.

For information about Monk's life, see Laurent De Wilde, Monk (1997), translated from the French by Jonathan Dickinson; and Thomas Fitterling, Thelonious Monk: His Life and Music (1997), translated from the German by Robert Dobbin. Many magazine articles describe aspects of Monk's life. Among the best are Nat Hentoff, "The Private World of Thelonious Monk," Esquire (Apr. 1960); "Thelonious Monk: Arrival Without Departure," Saturday Review (13 Apr. 1963): 32–37; and "Loneliest Monk," Time (28 Feb. 1964). For information about Monk's place in the world of jazz, see Andre Hodeir, Toward Jazz (1962), translated from the French by Noel Burch; and Len Lyons and Don Perlo, Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters (1989), which details Monk's misunderstood jazz reputation. Ian Carr, Digby Fairweather, and Brian Priestley, Jazz: The Rough Guide (1995), offers information on Monk's career and albums. For a list of compositions, see L. Bijl and F. Cante, Monk on Records: A Discography of Thelonious Monk (1985). An essential film is Charlotte Zwerin's acclaimed documentary, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988), which was edited from footage shot entirely in the 1960s. An obituary is in the New York Times (18 Feb. 1982).

Sandra Redmond Peters

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