Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk

The man of the hour at work!

I’m a sucker for a documentary and if it’s a BBC production, then chances are I will immediately love it! My latest Netflix discovery ticked both these boxes: Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities. The host, Dr. James Fox, introduces you to three pivotal years that altered the course of our collective histories (1908, 1928, and 1951). Instead of presenting dry factual evidence recounted and set to stock footage, he shows you these moments as seen through the lens of the cities at the center of these events. The episode on 1908 makes Vienna come alive – a world of tension, riddled with ignored social woes and excessive extravagances. This show being the first one, it set my hopes high and the next steps in the journey did not disappoint. While I felt like my appreciation for history soared during this show, I must admit that one name stood out to me. It was the only name presented during the program that I wasn’t familiar with: Thelonious Monk. Join me as we get to know a bit more about this influential musician. (And once you watch the show please let me know what you think in the comments!)

Who was Thelonious Monk?

Born in 1917, Thelonious and family moved from North Carolina to Manhattan when he was four years old. The move would prove to be nearly providential as a couple years later young Thelonious took an interest in the piano, sitting in on his sister’s lessons. By the time he was eleven he started his own classical training. Fast forward two years and his natural talents were being recognized by a larger audience. In fact, at the ripe age of thirteen, he had won so many of the weekly amateur contests at the Apollo Theater the management asked him to stop performing to allow other talent to get an opportunity!

You can imagine that as his talent grew, his desire to expand his horizons followed suit. He dropped out of high school and hit the road, touring with an evangelist. After a while the allure of the open road faded and he formed a quartet, eventually settling back in New York at a local Harlem jazz club. It was an interesting career choice as jazz musicians were finding their footing in big band settings. But just like his infamous style, Thelonious wanted a free environment.

“The piano ain’t got no wrong notes!” – Thelonious Monk

His first recording was made in 1944, under the name of the sextet: Blue Note. The critical acclaim wasn’t immediate. Three years later Thelonious married his long-time love, Nellie, and they started a family. His career continued to evolve during this time. 1952 brought him a recording deal with Prestige Records and a few hits, including an epic piano solo with Miles Davis.

Thelonious Monk

No big deal – just establishing modern jazz!

The mid-1950s saw Thelonious making more albums, received with increased appreciation. This success and visibility led to an international tour. The final stages of his career saw him gracing the cover of Time magazine and coming back to the limelight for limited performances at the Lincoln Center or famed Carnegie Hall. Thelonious passed away from a stroke in 1982, leaving behind a vibrant legacy that we’ll discuss in detail next.

What is Thelonious Monk remembered for?

Thelonious is considered the father of modern jazz because he was a pioneer of improvisation, fast rhythms, and sometimes jarring sounds. His approach to jazz (which was very deliberate and thoughtfully developed) was to take out notes. Telling the story through the contrast, the void, rather than the abundance of notes. This perspective was radical and set the stage for jazz as we know it today. You can see in his recorded sessions how his dynamic playing style mirrored his sound. (And can I just say as a side note for all those fashionistas out there – his personal style is amazing, no?!)

Check out Thelonious Monk’s son discuss his dad’s legacy in this clip.

The release of his 1956 album, Brilliant Corners, is considered a true modern masterpiece. His compositions broke new ground and Thelonious took a lot of risks. In fact the complexity of the sound, coupled with the technical precision he demanded, resulted in a lot of editing work in the sound studio! But those efforts paid off as the ambitious project led him to a record deal with Columbia, considered the premiere mainstream label of the time. Modern jazz had arrived!

Thelonious’ legend lives on in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. One can’t help but think that their International Jazz Competition, which encourages young talent, would make him beam with pride.

For the jazz lovers out there – who is your favorite musician from the early days of jazz and why? Listening to Thelonious’ pieces, what do you feel as your ear picks up on the dissonance?

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