article originally appeared in the July 1982 issue of Keyboard magazine.)
Scholars and fans could argue for years about which of the millions of recorded jazz solos belong in the category of classic performances, without ever reaching agreement on a definitive list. But it's safe to say that Thelonious Monk's improvisation on "Bags' Groove" would be a strong candidate for inclusion.
The tune is a 12-bar blues penned by Milt "Bags" Jackson, and it made its first appearance on a Miles Davis quintet session recorded on Dec. 24, 1954. In addition to Davis on trumpet, Jackson on vibes, and Monk on piano, the group included Percy Heath on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums. There was some tension between Miles and Monk on the date; reportedly, Miles told Monk not to comp at all behind the trumpet solos. The fact that Monk was sitting at the piano storing up energy (or fuming, if you choose to look at it that way) may have had something to do with the brilliant conciseness of his playing, not only on "Bags' Groove" but on "The Man I Love" (see page 26), recorded the same day.
For an analysis of the solo shown below, please consult Ran Blake's article The Monk Piano Style. (Listen along with the tune here.)