Weekend Chops Builder: Piano Giants of Jazz — Thelonious Monk

September 9, 2016

[This article first appeared in the May 1978 issue of Contemporary Keyboard magazine.]

There seems to be little doubt that Thelonious Monk is a giant, at least in terms of his contribution to jazz history. Whether or not you think of him as a piano giant of jazz may depend on the extent to which you demand technical orthodoxy of your musical idols.

For many years, Monk, though respected as an innovator and creative composer on the fringe of the bop movement, was largely disregarded as an instrumentalist. Some pianists, most notably Oscar Peterson, were outspoken in their negative views of Monk. My own feeling, expressed in the 1960 edition of the Encyclopedia Of Jazz, was that "although his compositions are his most important gift to jazz, he has extended his mastery of an individual piano technique to the point where his harmonic innovations, coupled with the stark, somber quality of his approach and the uniquely subtle use of dynamics, place him among the most important and influential figures in jazz today."

Everything about Monk has always been a trifle odd, eccentric, mysterious. Even his birth details have been contested. My book referred to him as Thelonious Sphere Monk, born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, on Oct. 10, 1920; but a birth certificate produced from the Rocky Mount records showed that a Thelius (sic) Monk was born there on Oct. 10, 1917.

Raised from childhood in the West Sixties of midtown Manhattan, Monk was mainly self-taught. "I never knew much about music theory," he once said. He played in a school band at 13, went on the road with a swinging evangelist in his late teens, and then became part of a clique of young jazz rebels who hung out at Minton's Play House in Harlem, often called the birthplace of bop, where Charlie Christian, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker often played after hours.

Even during this stage, Monk has insisted that he was not deliberately forging new paths. "I was just working a gig. I never bothered anybody, and I had no special feeling that anything new was being built. It's true that modern jazz probably began to develop at Minton's, but some of these articles you see try to put into one time and place something that actually went on in many places and took ten years to develop."

Some of Monk's tunes, like his piano meanderings, were deceptively simple. For instance, "Well You Needn't," which he recorded in 1947, is based on two chords, rooted a half-tone apart, plus a chromatic rising and falling during the bridge. Still, it took the singular mind and the angular manner of a Monk to construct such a work.

His career for many years was one of fits and starts; he worked briefly with the Lucky Millinder band and with Dizzy Gillespie, made only one record date during the early bop years (a Coleman Hawkins session in 1944), and usually led a trio or small combo during the 1950s, a decade that saw his gradual acceptance as a major figure and the darling of a cult, whose exaggerated view of his gifts was as badly out of proportion as the derogations that dismissed his work as ugly and contrived.

During the 1960s Monk led a quartet (with tenor sax, bass, and drums) and occasionally led a large group for a concert. On these occasions his best-known works were arranged for a large ensemble by the late Hall Overton, a longtime Monk associate, who took on the job because Monk did not orchestrate.

In 1971-2 Monk toured the U.S. and Europe with Gillespie and others in a sextet called the Giants Of Jazz, but he was already showing signs of instability, and for the past five years, except for one or two concerts, he has been ill and almost totally inactive. Whether or not he ever appears again in public, it seems certain that his legacy of quirky, personal melodic lines, almost all created during the 1940s, will be remembered and performed as long as jazz exists.

Among his most typical works, most of them based on the basic 32-bar chorus or the 12-bar blues pattern, are "Epistrophy," "Blue Monk," "Off Minor," "Straight No Chaser," and "Ruby My Dear." This last is one of his few ballads, but the best remembered in that category is of course "'Round Midnight" (sometimes called "'Round About Midnight"), part of which is transcribed here. This was recorded in 1947 for The Genius Of Modern Music: Thelonious Monk [Blue Note, BLP 1510].

Since there is virtually no audible left hand, the transcription shows the parts played by trumpet and alto sax (written an octave higher and in concert pitch). Monk's most personal characteristics can all be found here: the use of such intervals as minor and major seconds (during bars 8, 11, 12, for instance); the laid-back rhythmic feel (that Gb in the first bar actually belongs, in terms of the way the melody is normally written or played, on the third beat rather than after it); the whole-tone runs (bars 7 and 8).

There are also Monk's harmonic obliquities. What exactly is that quasi-D7 run doing in bar 6? And why, after 16 bars of Eb minor progressions, does he end the phrase with an Ebmaj7(6) chord?

Ours is not to reason why. Monk reminds us of a reply once offered in an attempt to define dissonance. "It is the art," some sage remarked, "of making wrong sound right."

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