Lesson: The Monk Piano Style

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

In addition to being a dedicated Monk fan, Ran Blake teaches contemporary jazz at the New England Conservatory. His group and solo piano albums have appeared on Arista and several European labels.

Giants abound in the history of American improvised piano, which is studded with the talents of innovators and consolidators. In addition to such acknowledged masters as Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Earl Hines, and, of course, Art Tatum, I would include Count Basie for his rhythmic drive and sparseness, Bill Evans for his highly innovative linear improvisations, and dozens of other vitally important figures.

But I know of no pianist as personal as Thelonious Monk. As with Ben Webster's sax playing and Billie Holiday's singing, there is never any doubt who is at the keyboard. It may be a delayed attack on a chord, a cluster that pounces like a tornado, or a jagged snippet that asserts itself under a number of guises. Monk's methods of reworking the raw material of a tune are unlike anybody else's.

Pianists and other musicians can gain a great deal by studying and considering Monk's sense of melodic connections between chords when comping behind a soloist, his use of the melody of a composition as the cantus firmus to be referred to constantly during a solo in place of the more common practice of creating new melodies that outline the chord changes, and above all, his magnificent use of space. These are a few of the important elements of Thelonious Monk's piano style.

His approach to the keyboard was a radical departure from what had gone before, and he unquestionably qualifies as one of the great jazz innovators, though fewer people were prepared to adopt the Monk vocabulary than learned and repeated Charlie Parker's virtuoso licks. In addition, Monk's respect for tradition, especially the strangely refracted blues feeling that pervades much of his work, qualifies him as a consolidator of what had gone before. Some musicians have discarded the old to arrive at the new, while others have made their main contribution by distilling and perfecting the contributions of others. Monk did both.

Monk's solos are superb examples of what I call "liquid composition." He always seemed to be aware, when playing a solo, of where he had been and where he was going, and he almost never resorted to spinning out lead lines merely to be filling space. When he felt that he had nothing to say, Monk was quite willing to let the space remain empty.

Ex. 1. Monk's solo on "The Man I Love" 

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On one memorable occasion, when recording Gershwin's "The Man I Love" on a session with Miles Davis, Monk played the 'A' section of his solo extremely sparsely, using almost nothing but the basic melodic figure of the tune (see Ex. 1). This was more striking than it looks on the page, because the rhythm section was playing a double­time beat in relation to the chord changes, while Monk went the opposite direction and played the melody in half-time, so that each note was sustained twice as long as would be expected. Still, it was the 'B' section that was uniquely Monk. In the 'B' section he played nothing at all, leaving the bass and drums to fend for themselves. Apparently (judging from the recording), this silence was too much for Miles, who after a few bars played a little bugle call to wake up the piano player! [Ed. Note: There were two takes of "The Man I Love," both of which are found on the twelve-record box set Miles Davis Chronicle: The Complete Prestige Recordings. The version of the 'A' section shown in Ex. 1 is from take one, but it was on take two that Monk laid out on the 'B' section.]

Jazz writer Whitney Balliet offers another perspective: "His [Monk's] improvisations were molten Monk compositions, and his compositions were frozen Monk improvisations." This is an important perception, emphasizing the essential unity of everything Monk did. But it is also true that his compositions were concise, tightly structured gems, in which to alter one note would be to change the shape of the whole. His solos were more laconic and often more deeply emotional, though there are certainly tunes like "'Round Midnight" and "Crepuscule With Nellie" (see Ex. 2) that showed Monk's lyrical side, while solos like the superb blues "Bags' Groove" (viewable here), which will be discussed in more detail below, are as tightly constructed and brilliantly developed as any composition.
Ex. 2. "Crepuscule with Nellie"

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Since Monk had a habit of re-recording compositions he had written and recorded years before, it is sometimes possible to see the principles of economy in his composition at work. In the 1951 Blue Note version of "Criss Cross"(see Ex. 3), for example, Monk presents the theme completely, with a repeating eight-bar 'A' section, an eight-bar 'B' section, and a reprise of the 'A' section. But in the early 1960s Columbia version of the same tune, he omits the last two bars of the bridge, transforming the structure drastically. Since the 'B' section contains a three-bar phrase that is repeated, followed by a two­bar tag phrase, omitting the tag phrase emphasizes the asymmetry of the three-bar phrases and gives the return of the 'A' section an unexpected jump.

Ex. 3. The lead line of "Criss Cross" 

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There are many aspects of Monk's music that merit discussion. I'd like to talk about his compositions, his rhythmic and harmonic ingenuity, and his improvisations, and also give examples of his pianistic technique and his roots in the Harlem stride piano tradition in which he grew up.

Let's start with technique. How often have you heard musicians say, "Monk writes good tunes, but he can't play the piano"? This is a common misconception, but his recordings frequently contain short keyboard passages that are actually a great deal harder to play than they sound. Consider his solo piano recording of "Eronel." At the beginning of the first solo chorus, and again at the beginning of the second (see Ex. 4), he plays a trill with the thumb and index finger of his right hand while his fourth and fifth fingers articulate the accented melody notes. The left hand is also playing some low chords, so there is no question that the right hand is doing both parts. This feat of pianism certainly merits the term 'virtuosity,' and a little listening is enough to detect other instances of similar technical precision.

Ex. 4. Two Exerpts from "Eronel"

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To those who aren't familiar with jazz keyboard work in general, Monk often sounds clumsy or deficient in technique because of his predilection for split notes (minor or major seconds played simultaneously as though they were a single note). This is a standard jazz technique, used to provide variety of articulation in a line, but it's true that Monk used more split notes than almost any other jazz pianist. When we look at how he uses them, however, we find that they were clearly intentional, and not the result of sloppy fingering. The seventh chorus of "Bag's Groove," for example, is built entirely on the idea of hitting a minor second and then letting one of the two keys up. Elsewhere, as in "Hornin' In" (see Ex. 5), Monk composes a unison line for the horns and then doubles it on the keyboard in major seconds, playing both the horn notes and the notes above them.

Ex. 5. Ensemble orchestration on the 'A' section of "Hornin' In" 

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Several piano players, notably Earl Hines and Bud Powell, borrowed the kind of lines played by horn players (Louis Armstrong and other trumpeters in the case of Hines, and Charlie Parker in the case of Powell) and adapted them to the keyboard. But Monk's idiom was both intensely personal and intensely pianistic. It's hard to imagine much of his music being conceived for or executed on any instrument other than the piano. You can sometimes hear the horn players he worked with struggling to play his music, because it's not horn music. And in learning Monk tunes for a memorial concert we did recently, I was amazed to find how well they fit under my fingers.

We can also discover, once in a great while, Monk acknowledging his debt to stride piano. In his solo in "Thelonious," for example (see Ex. 6), after a first chorus that consists mostly of a high Bb octave played over and over, Monk abruptly launches into a stride statement of the changes, with a typically laconic Monk phrase in the right hand. With the possible exception of the left-hand chord on the fourth beat of bar 8 of the example, which doesn't seem to fit with the Cb7 harmony of the third beat, there is certainly nothing in this passage that could be called sloppy or technically deficient.

Ex. 6. A portion of Monk's solo on "Thelonious" 

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Turning to Monk the composer, we find different tunes revealing different facets of his thinking. His well-known predilection for whole-tone scales, and their associated flat-5th and sharp-5th chords, was a way of organ­izing pitch material that, carried to its logical conclusion, allowed him to develop a high degree of harmonic ambiguity while retain­ing the familiar jazz cycle-of-fifths feel. In other words, since there are only two whole-tone scales, it's possible to write music that sounds as though it is following a cycling chord progression by merely shifting back and forth from one scale to the other, without clarifying where the roots of the chords are.

A clear example of this is seen in "Hornin' In," a rarely played Monk composition and one I believe he only recorded once. The transcription shows the entire orchestration (except for drums) of the first run-through of the' A' section. What is remarkable about this tune is that until the cadence arrives in bar 7, there is nothing to tell the listener what key the tune is in. The familiar II-V progressions are absent (though when bar 7 arrives, we can look back and see that the tenor was playing the 3rd of a II in bar 5 and the 7th of a V in bar 6). Instead, Monk uses the Eb whole­tone scale for the first two bars, then dodges away to the other (outlined by the E and Bb in bar 3). Bars 3 and 4 especially are in a twilight zone at the border of tonality; the tenor is implying some sort of harmonic movement, but we are unable to say what the chords would be.

For the ears of musicians who were steeped in the swift melodies of Bird and the blues of Mahalia Jackson in the early ‘50s, this was entirely new, even shocking. While composers working in the European concert music tradition had been experimenting with diffuse tonality or even atonality for several decades, jazz had remained a firmly tonal music. Along with a few other pioneers like Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Lennie Tristano, Richard Twardzik, and George Russell, Monk was responsible for loosening the grip of tonality and thus paving the way for the later free jazz experiments of Ornette Coleman and others.

In the mid-‘50s, having severed his connections with Blue Note Records and later Prestige Records, Monk began recording with the sympathetic support of Orrin Keepnews of Riverside Records. In this fertile period, he composed three of his finest compositions, "Brilliant Corners," "Pannonica," and "Crepuscule With Nellie," as well as such catchy tunes as "Jackie-ing" and "Worry Now Later." "Pannonica" is dedicated to the legendary Baroness Pannonica Koenigswarter, who inspired a number of other compositions by Monk and a great many other musicians (a partial list would include "Nica's Dream" by Horace Silver, "Nica's Tempo" by saxophonist Gigi Gryce, "Blues For Nica" by Kenny Drew, "Tonica" by trumpeter Kenny Dorham, "Nica" by Sonny Clark, and "Nica Steps Out" by Freddie Redd). "Pannonica," which incidentally marked Monk's debut on celeste, is a composition that haunts; its granite beauty has a devastating impact on listeners, even those not fully convinced by Monk. The melody of "Brilliant Corners" stalks around a circular path. Shifts in tempo and Sonny Rollins' fine sax solo add to Monk's uncompromising mood.

In addition to the Baroness, Nellie Monk was a great source of strength to her husband. "Crepuscule With Nellie," written while she was recuperating from an illness, may be Monk's most harmonically rich composition (see Ex. 2); the parallel sixths in bar 1, which set the mood, are certainly not a typical Monk device. Here again, however, he creates harmonic ambiguity by starting on a II major chord, not even introducing the flat 7th for a couple of beats. The dissonant interjection at the end of bar 2 is probably something that only Monk could have thought of. At first glance, it seems foreign to the rest of the tune, but in fact it provides the vital spur that keeps listeners on the edges of their seats.

Ex. 2. again: "Crepuscule with Nellie" 

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Monk composed a large library of music, making it difficult to single out any one composition over the others, but many fans agree that "Criss Cross" (Ex. 3) is among his best. I particularly like the second note in the figure, which gives a Lydian quality to the melody. But the harmonic structure is less important here; what is striking is the rhythm of the melody. In his four-bar intro, Monk sets up a three-beat pattern that crosses the bar lines, with stressed long notes that form a rising chromatic scale. Beginning at the repeat sign (the actual beginning of the 32-bar structure of the tune), the piano and alto seem to be merely repeating what Monk has already played—but with an exquisite sense of timing, Monk dodges away in bar 7, first leaving an unexpected hole with the eighth-rest and then jumping up past the high point of the previous line (the Ab in bar 4) to an A-natural. A new figure is introduced in bar 12, its descending chromatic scale perfectly mirroring the rising chromatic scale in the first four bars.

Ex. 3 again: The lead line of "Criss Cross"

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The stark economy and clarity of organization of Monk's improvised soloing are plainly audible in just about everything he recorded, but "Bags' Groove" (click here) may be an especially good example of the Monk genius at work. This is a standard 12- bar blues, and instead of referring directly to the melody of the head, Monk creates his own "molten composition." In the first chorus, he introduces a simple two-note idea and plays with it for a while, finally expanding the interval of a fourth to an augmented fifth to create a momentary dissonance with the F # before resolving back to the two notes with which he started. In the second chorus a more 'melodic' figure appears, but after only a few bars he abandons it in favor of a series of sixths and sevenths in laconic syncopations. At the end of the chorus, however, these larger intervals collapse back to a fourth, making it clear that Monk was only continuing the development of his first idea.

The fourth is also the basis of the next chorus, but here it is played in sixteenth­notes as a sort of tremolo, as the music becomes more agitated. The upper notes in this section, the D, E, F, and Eb, outline a melodic idea, and Monk quickly abandons the sixteenth-notes in favor of this more powerful element, combining it with the upward interval leaps from the previous chorus in a series of more dissonant and more rhythmically staggered fragments. At the end of this chorus he returns to earth momentarily with a tag phrase that is almost corny. What redeems it is that it serves as the springboard for the block chord chorus, which is the most abstruse material in the whole solo. Notice how the block chords elaborate the rhythmic idea of the preceding tag phrase, twisting it around and taking it in unexpected directions.

Having emerged triumphant from this jungle of dissonant voicings, Monk returns to the triplet figure he abandoned in the second chorus. At first this seems to be a whimsical little idea, but the downward leaps at the ends of the phrases become more and more bizarre, while the rigid use of rests between phrases creates mounting suspense. In these two choruses also we can see how Monk deliberately omits selected notes in the triplet figures. The ear of the listener tends to supply the missing notes, however, so that in some sense not striking a note at all is simply another variety of keyboard articulation, as effective and as characteristic of Monk as the three-note cluster near the end of this passage.

In the last chorus transcribed (actually, the solo goes on for two more choruses after this one), Monk tries out a new idea as spare as the one he started with, striking two notes at a time and then releasing one of them to create a pitch-bending effect. At this point he is using only his right hand, letting the bass sketch in the blues structure without adding any left-hand chords. And given the superb balance of the lead line, any left hand at all would have been superfluous.


Monk's repertoire also embraced a number of standard tunes, such as "Carolina Moon," "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," and "April In Paris." We don't have space to transcribe them here, but they are worth listening to and studying in detail because of the way Monk altered and developed the material; in effect, he 'recomposed' practically every standard he played. In recomposition, a high degree of the personality of the artist permeates the subject matter, without destroying or obliterating the original. The 'recomposer' explores new horizons, not merely embellishing but using the structure of the tune to create something new. In film, Luis Buñuel, Carlos Suara, and Alfred Hitchcock are considered auteurs. They are more than innovators—their films possess a special recognizable style. Monk too possesses this quality of uniqueness. Although we recognize the old tunes when he plays them, they become in a musical sense his property.

There is much that can be learned from Monk, and much to emulate, even for musicians operating outside the straight-ahead jazz style. Among the greatest lessons he has to teach us are the ways in which he uses space—both intervallic space and temporal space. In two minutes or less, he can paraphrase a melody, lovingly or sarcastically altering the landscape by adding or subtracting a note or two, emphasizing an accent, allowing the silences a chance to breathe. Such minute but crucial transformations are close to the essence of Monk's music.

On a broader scale, we can study how Monk developed the ingredients that were fresh and vital to him, how he assimilated and molded them into a new perspective, pruning away whatever was irrelevant, both in his improvisations and in his compositions. He created his own universe; and if we can't enter it completely, still we can share it with him for a while by listening to his recordings. There is only one Monk.

As Solo Pianist or Leader:
Always Know (quartet & solo perfs., 1962-68), Columbia
April Live In Paris (with Rouse, Ore, & Dunlop, 1961), Milestone
At The Five Spot (with Griffin, Malik, & Haynes, 1958) 
Blue Monk, Prestige
Brilliance (with Rollins, Roach, Pettiford, others, 1956), Milestone
Complete Genius (with Sulieman, Blakey, Jackson, others, 1947-52), Blue Note
Criss Cross, Columbia Special Products
Five By Monk By Five, Riverside
Genius Of Thelonious Monk, Prestige
Golden Monk (1963-64), Prestige
High Priest Prestige
In Action (with Griffin, Haynes, others, 1958), Riverside
In Person (with big band, 1959, & sextet, 1960), Milestone
It's Monk's Time (with Rouse & others, 1964), Columbia
Misterioso (with Griffin, Haynes, others, 1958), Riverside
Misterioso (1966), Columbia
The Thelonious Monk Memorial Album Milestone
Monk/Trane (with Coltrane, Ware, Wilson, 1957-58), Milestone
Monk's Blues (with big band, 1968), Columbia, CS-9806.
Monk's Dream Columbia Special Products, JCS-8765.
Monk's Music (with Coltrane, Hawkins, others), Gateway.
Mulligan Meets Monk (with Mulligan, Ware, Wilson, 1957), Riverside
Piano Solos, Everest
Plays Duke Ellington (with Pettiford, Clarke, 1955), Riverside
Pure Monk (solo, 1954) DJM Ltd.
Pure Monk (solo, 1955-59), Milestone
Reflections, Vol. 1 Prestige
Solo (1964-65), Columbia
Something In Blue (with McKibbon, Blakey, 1971), Black Lion
Straight, No Chaser (w. Rouse, others), Columbia
Thelonious Himself (solo), Riverside
Thelonious Monk (solo, 1954), GNP Crescendo
Tribute To Monk & Bird, Tomato
Underground (1967-68), Columbia
Unique (with Pettiford, Blakey, 1956), Riverside

As Sideman:
Art Blakey Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk, Atlantic
Midnight At Minton's (with Don Byas), Onyx
Charlie Christian (at Minton's, 1941), Archive of Folk & Jazz Music
Chronicle (with Miles Davis), Prestige
Miles & Monk At Newport, Columbia
Signals (with Gigi Gryce, Heath, Blakey, 1955), Savoy
Harlem Odyssey (with Joe Guy), Xanadu
Trumpet Battle At Minton's (with Guy & Hot Lips Page), Xanadu
Bean & The Boys (with Coleman Hawkins Quartet, 1944), Prestige
After Hours In Harlem (with Page), Onyx
Sweets, Lips, & Lots Of Jazz (w. Page, Sweets Edison), Xanadu
Sonny Rollins (with Chambers, Blakey, others, 1957), Blue Note.
Vintage Sessions (with Rollins, others), Prestige

Thanks to Dan Morgenstern for his assistance.