Lesson: Solo Piano—Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk”

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(This article originally appeared in the May ’97 issue of Keyboard magazine.) 
Pianist and composer Thelonious Monk occupies a very special place in the history of jazz, and in the history of American music as a whole. A strange and wonderful human being with a truly unconventional approach to the piano, he was also one of the greatest composers of small-form jazz tunes in the history of jazz to date. His career began in the days of the great stride pianists such as James P. Johnson, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and Willie “The Lion” Smith. Duke Ellington was perhaps his greatest influence not only as a pianist but as a composer. He was on the scene at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem for the birth of bebop in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and he in turn was a major influence on Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell. His angular tunes—with their profound use of space, rhythm, and motivic development—set the stage for improvisations that are truly compositional yet always swing. Among his dozens of tunes are such masterpieces as “Evidence,” Crepuscule for Nellie,” “I Mean You,” “’Round Midnight,” “Four in One,” “Bye-Ya,” “Brilliant Corners,” “Ruby My Dear”… the list goes on and on. Monk’s music was never far from the blues—his playing was steeped in the blues, and he wrote a number of blues tunes that are compositionally quite sophisticated: “Misterioso,” “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are,” “Criss-Cross,” and this month’s subject, “Blue Monk.”

Monk’s tunes are so concentrated in their use of themes and motives that it’s always a good idea to analyze the theme before you learn to play it. “Blue Monk” is based on a four-note motif that outlines a minor third (Example 1, bar 1); bars 3 and 4 are a response to the first two iterations of the motive. (Notice that the response outlines a four-note falling chromatic scale that mirrors the original motive.) The scheme repeats on a IV chord in bars 5 and 6, with the response in bars 7 and 8. A new element is added in bar 9, in the form of a dropped-octave figure. The response follows in bar 10, and is restated in bar 11 on beat 2, offset by one beat! Sounds simple, but it’s not. Check Examples 2 and 3, as well.

Ex. 1. A good initial approach to “Blue Monk” is with two voices, sometimes in parallel motion, sometimes in contrary, indicated here as the two outer voices. On your next pass, include the middle voice. Note: Play the upper voice in bars 7 and 8 in the bass staff for your two-voice version, and add the lower voice for the three-voice version.

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Ex. 2. Now let’s add some moving altered chords, harmony in fourths, and pedal points to get a more expansive sound. Stay relaxed when you play the larger chords, so you keep the nice rhythmic flow.

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Ex. 3. For blowing, try this set of alternate changes.

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To familiarize yourself with the world of Thelonious Monk, I highly recommend the documentary film Straight, No Chaser, which should be widely available on video. Besides being a great portrait of this amazing artist, it has spectacular performance footage and is considered to be one of the best jazz films ever made.

Listen to these Monk recordings, as well: 
Alone in San Francisco (Fantasy)
The Best of Thelonious Monk: The Blue Note Years (Blue Note)
The Composer (Columbia/Legacy)
Criss-Cross (Columbia/Legacy)
Underground (Columbia/Legacy)
Monk’s Blues (Columbia/Legacy)
Solo Monk (Columbia/Legacy)

These are just a few of the several dozen classic Monk titles now available on CD. Monk’s world of strange beauty is well worth checking out.

Bio: At the time, this lesson was first published, the author had just recorded Fred Hersch Plays Monk for Nonesuch, which was released in 1997. Visit Fred Hersch’s website for more details.

Here's the man himself, turning in a fabulous rendition of "Blue Monk." Check out his solo section: Hear anything familiar in there?