The unique Thelonious Monk

Illustrazione di Zoa Studio con profilo di Thelonious Monk

If a couple of weeks ago we talked about the “godfather of shock rock”, Alice Cooper, today we entertain you with the “high priest” of jazz music, Thelonious Monk. Imagine brushes hitting cymbals and some piano notes, à la Whiplash to be clear, and enter the perfect mood with us to pay homage to this incredible pianist on the anniversary of his death.

Thelonious Monk towards success

Thelonious Sphere Monk was born on October 10, 1917 (in the middle of World War I) in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He was only four years old when his mother and two brothers, Marion and Thomas, moved to New York City.

His father, Thelonious, Sr., joined them three years later, but for health reasons he had to return to North Carolina. While with his children, Thelonious senior often played the harmonica and piano, which probably influenced his son’s musical interests.

And like so many of the artists we’ve talked about, (Alexander McQueen for fashion last week), young Monk turned out to be a musical prodigy as well as a good student and decent athlete.

At first he briefly studied the trumpet, but then found his way into the piano when he was only nine years old. In his early teens, he played both the piano at private parties and the organ at a local Baptist church, and he was said to have won several amateur competitions.

Admitted to Peter Stuyvesant, one of the best high schools in the city, Monk left his studies at the end of the second year to devote himself to music and, around 1935, began working as a pianist for a traveling evangelist and healer (such as those seen in tv to understand). After two years of touring with the healer, Monk formed his own quartet and played in bars and small clubs until early 1941, when drummer Kenny Clarke hired him as a regular pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem.

The bebop revolution

Minton’s, according to legend, was the place where the “bebop revolution” began. After-hour jam sessions at Minton’s, along with similar musical encounters at other venues, attracted a new generation of musicians full of new ideas, most notably Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, to name a couple.

However, as much as Monk helped start the bebop revolution, he also charted a new course for modern music that few were willing to follow. While most pianists of the bebop era played scattered chords with their left hand and emphasized fast notes, Monk combined an active right hand with an equally active left hand, using the entire keyboard.

In addition, at a time when fast solos and piano virtuosity were common, Monk was famous for being able to use silence as well. As a composer, Monk was interested in creating a completely new architecture for his music, in which harmony and rhythm blended perfectly with the melody. Monk introduced edgy melodies and dissonant chords, sweetening them with the elegance of his touch.

Jazz reentered its high modernity and took on a modernist contempt for convention. It was Monk who set the tone: “play whatever you want, and let the audience grasp what you are doing – even if it takes 15 or 20 years”.

For young American composers who were attentive and new and free of preconceptions, the decades of the Cold War were above all the era of Be-bop and modern jazz. Together with Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charles Mingus pushed the boundaries of swing to create unabashedly “cool” and free-flowing music.

The first record deal and the criticisms

However, despite his contribution to the early development of modern jazz, Monk remained quite marginal during the 1940s and early 1950s.

Indeed, most critics and many musicians were initially hostile to Monk’s sound. Blue Note, which was still a small record label at the time, was the first to sign him a contract.

So when he walked into the studio to conduct his first recording session in 1947, he was already thirty. In the end, although the recordings at the Blue Note are now seen as some of his greatest, at the time of their release they proved to be a commercial failure.

The criticism, obvious from misinformation, limited Monk’s job opportunities, which he desperately needed, especially after his marriage to Nellie Smith in 1947 and the birth of his son, Thelonious, Jr., in 1949. Monk found work where he could, but he never wanted to come to terms with and change his vision of music.

The Fifties

His already precarious financial situation took a bad turn in August 1951 when he was wrongfully arrested for drug possession.

For this reason, Monk was deprived of that sort of “license” issued by the police without which jazz musicians could not perform in New York clubs. Monk was also banned from playing in his hometown for the next six years.

However, he still managed to play, doing out-of-town concerts and hiding under the Prestige label (1952-1954). The label included memorable performances with Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis and Milt Jackson. In the fall of 1953 Monk had a daughter, Barbara, and the following summer he crossed the Atlantic for the first time to play at the Paris Jazz Festival.

During his stay in the French capital, Monk recorded his first solo album, which began to make him one of the most original solo pianists of the century. In 1955, Monk signed with a new label, Riverside, and recorded several outstanding albums that attracted critical attention, most notably Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, The Unique Thelonious Monk, Brilliant Corners, Monk’s Music and his second solo album, Thelonious Monk Alone. In 1957, with the help of his friend and sometimes patron, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, he regained his license to play. From then on, his career began to take off.

The 60s and the fame

Thelonious Monk performed with a well-respected band at Lincoln Center (1963) and the Monterey Jazz Festival. The quartet toured Europe in 1961 and Japan in 1963. By 1962, Monk had also signed with Columbia Records and in February 1964 he became the third jazz musician in history on the cover of Time Magazine.

However, with the fame came growing media attention to Monk’s alleged eccentricities. Stories of his behavior on and offstage often overshadowed more constructive criticisms of his music. In fact, the media invented the figure of the lonely, naive, wise idiot Monk.

His commitment to originality in all aspects of life – in fashion, in his creative use of language and economy of words, in his biting humor, even in the way he danced away from the piano – led fans to call him a recluse and downright crazy. But Monk was misunderstood.

Unlike the popular stereotypes of the jazz musician (or of the rock star we might add), Monk loved to rest after he finished playing and, above all, he was devoted to his family. He wrote playfully complex songs for his children: “Little Rootie Tootie“, “Boo Boo’s Birthday” and “Green Chimneys” and even a Christmas song.

During the 1960s, Monk achieved notable success with albums such as Criss Cross, Monk’s Dream, It’s Monk Time, Straight No Chaser and Underground.

But as Columbia / CBS records pursued a younger, rock-oriented audience, Monk and other jazz musicians ceased to be a priority for the label. Monk’s last recording with Columbia was a session in November 1968, which proved to be both an artistic and a commercial failure .

1968 and Palo Alto

Also in 1968, in the fall, 16-year-old Danny Scher invited today’s protagonist and his quartet to perform at his high school in Palo Alto, California.

Let’s not forget that 1968 had been a year of great tension in the United States, marked by the killings of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, by the revelations of what was being done in Vietnam, with protests and riots across the country.

Even in Palo Alto these tensions, even of a racial nature, were being felt. However, the concert took place and was recorded by the school keeper, who released it in 2010, 52 years after its recording.

Monk’s son Thelonious Jr, drummer, called “Palo Alto” one of the best recordings of his father. That father capable of leaving aside all his commitments as a musician at the height of his career to listen to the appeal of a sixteen year old jazz lover.

The last years and the legacy of Thelonious Monk

Columbia’s disinterest in the late 1960s and Monk’s deteriorating health kept the pianist out of the studio. Over the next several years, Monk accepted fewer commitments and recorded even fewer. His quartet included saxophonists Pat Patrick and Paul Jeffrey, and his son Thelonious, Jr. took over the drums in 1971.

In the same year until 1972, Monk toured with the “Giants of Jazz“, a kind of super bop revival group. The band consisted of Dizzy Gillespie, Kai Winding, Sonny Stitt, Al McKibbon and Art Blakey. His last public appearance dates back to July 1976.

Over time, physical illness, fatigue and probably the exhaustion of creativity convinced Monk to give up playing altogether. He spent the last six years of his life with his friend and benefactress Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter.

On February 5, 1982, the jazzman was hit by a stroke and never regained consciousness from that moment on. Twelve days later, on February 17, he died.

Since his death, Monk was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. He was also added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. And featured on a United States postage stamp.

Today Thelonious Monk is widely accepted as a true master of American music. His compositions form the core of the jazz repertoire and are performed by artists of many different genres. He has become the subject of award-winning documentaries, biographies and academic studies, prime time television tributes.

An institute was created in his name. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz is to promote jazz education and to train and encourage new generations of musicians. A fitting tribute to an artist who has always been willing to share his musical knowledge with others, expecting only commitment and originality in return.

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