Chick Corea on Thelonious Monk

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(This article originally appeared in the July 1982 issue of Keyboard magazine.) 

There aren’t enough superlatives for Monk. I’ve been playing some of his music lately and finding ways to integrate it into my bands. With the Griffith Park band [trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Joe Henderson, bassist Stanley Clarke, drummer Lenny White, and Corea], we've been playing "I Mean You" and "'Round Midnight," and I just made an album for ECM of Monk's music with Roy Haynes on drums and Miroslav Vitous on bass. [Ed. It was titled Trio Music when it was released.]

Monk has always intrigued me. His music strikes me as more and more important as the years go by. He is truly the classic composer of jazz. Duke Ellington's music is much more hard to capture; it really needed to be expressed through Duke's own band. The players were so important for his tunes, whereas Monk's compositions stand all tests of orchestration and arrangement.

He had a very strong effect on me as a piano player, too. Monk made me aware of so many things on the piano. His playing was very clear, very subtle and sophisticated, but also very simple. He always plays the melody, even when he's not playing the melody. He's always playing the tune that is being played. But this doesn't mean that what he played was easy. If you transcribed some of his solo piano music, you'd see that it wouldn't be that easy to play.

This brings up the old question of Monk's chops. All I have to say about that is that Monk had all the chops he needed. Chops, or the ability to move across a keyboard, is important only in relation to the music you're playing. It would be impossible to abstract Monk's technique from his music. They were one and the same thing. Whatever his music demanded, he developed a way to do it. It didn't seem to me that whatever he was unable to do at the piano was restraining his creativity. Not at all. I'm sure that if he wanted to play fast thirds in the right hand, he could have done it.

He used the rare quality of space, which is so important to any art, and he used it so strikingly, making you very aware of it. And his playing was so incredibly precise and structured. There are those who listen to it who think it's sloppy or something, but they're missing the soul of the music. He intended each note. That's the trick of playing music or doing anything, actually: Each gesture you make should be an intentional action, not just random. Monk never played random things.

He was different from the bebop piano players. It seemed to me that most of them comped mechanically, without even thinking about what they were doing any longer. They weren't intending the notes. They were just laying chords down as if the horn player didn't know the changes, instead of making music. Monk made music with his accompaniment, as if he had written it out. He left spaces and put things in the right places. If you sat down and wrote an orchestration, you would spend some time thinking about where to place things—it's that aspect of intention again. The next piano player whose comping struck me in a similar way was Herbie Hancock. I love the way he accompanied Miles [Davis].

I was very fortunate to see Monk play quite a bit in the '60s. In fact, when I was working with Mongo Santamaria's band, there was one stint of a week or two where we worked two or three shows together every night at the Apollo Theatre in New York. Monk was there with his quartet: Charlie Rouse on sax, Frankie Dunlop on drums, and John Ore on bass. I found a little hole in the backdrop curtain that was right by his piano, so every time he came on I just stood there totally engrossed. It was a great lesson.

He did something one night that was just crazy, but it was wonderful. He started out his set with "Rhythm-a-ning." The band ended it the usual way: piano solo, take the melody out. There was about a two-second pause, then Monk played the whole thing through again! It sounded like the first time they had ever played the tune, totally fresh and beautiful. They played it all the way through—same arrangement, same solo sequences—then ended the tune, took two or three seconds, and played "Rhythm-a-ning" a third time, all the way through again as if it was the first time. Another two- or three­second pause, then they did it a fourth time. Same tempo, same tune. The audience didn't know what was happening; they were just grooving. That was his set!

I recently went out and bought a lot of old Monk records because I had given all mine away or lost them. It's hard for me to pick out any favorites. I like them all. I heard one, though, that I hadn't heard before, a big band record on Columbia [Monk's Blues, CS-9806]. It's actually pretty funny. I don't like it that much, but there's one solo Monk takes on "Little Rootie Tootie" that I just love. The band plays the head in what I consider a real corny style—I would never arrange the tune that way—but then Monk jumps in and plays a piano solo that's sort of like saying to everybody in the room, "All right, this is 'Rootie Tootie!"'

Everything Monk did was unusual. I mean, he was an unusual guy. His whole life was unusual. I just hope that he picks up another body real quick and writes us some more music.

Since the 1960s, Chick Corea has been an outstanding pianist, multi-keyboardist and composer at the forefront of contemporary jazz. He is also a former columnist for Keyboard.