Thelonious Monk: Tributes from Colleagues

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You couldn't get too free, because as Coltrane said one time, if you miss a change with Monk, you feel like you've suddenly stepped into an empty elevator shaft. You couldn't get too far from his sound or intention.” — Sonny Rollins

The early issues of Keyboard magazine were transformative to an entire generation of musicians. The July 1982 Thelonious Monk issue was of particular importance to me as a young man: It not only had the effect of further legitimizing Monk’s unique voice, but it reinforced the concept that jazz is about personal expression. This message came at a time when the genre was moving, in my opinion, into a phase of increased conformity so that it could be more successfully marketed. Of course, that wasn’t a new phenomenon, but when this issue hit the streets, popular non-jazz acts were appearing with greater frequency in jazz festivals to draw bigger crowds, a trend that continues to this day. In July ’82, Keyboard reminded us of what it means to be a truly creative artist.

One particularly insightful, yet often overlooked section in that issue was a collection of brief tributes from fellow musicians, some of whom had actually worked with the pianist. To me, their comments added an extra level of dimension to Keyboard’s portrait of Thelonious Monk, and I hope you will find them equally enlightening. —Gino Robair

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

Piano players weren’t the only musicians whose work was affected by Thelonious Monk. Drummers, bassists, and horn players, especially those privileged to work with Monk, also felt his impact, some­times after just one or two hearings.

What is most peculiar about Monk's legacy is the generally accepted idea that he established no specific school of piano playing. Unlike Earl Hines, Art Tatum, and Bud Powell, to name three influential masters of jazz piano, Monk had no keyboard disciples, yet he may have left his mark along a broader plane than any other pianist in jazz history. Both Hines and Powell, for example, transposed contemporary approaches to horn improvisation onto the keyboard; their contribution, then, was to apply something that was already happening elsewhere to the piano. And because of his complex polyphony, Tatum had almost no influence on horn and rhythm players.

But all jazz players could hear something in Monk's work that had meaning for them, no matter what their instrument. To prove our point, we offer the following recollections and comments from some of today's jazz greats. Those who were pianists listened intently to his work. Those who played other instruments performed and recorded with him. And all have first-hand observations about the lessons he left for the jazz players of today and tomorrow.

Max Roach (Drums)
Like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Monk gave the drummer space by virtue of the fact that he was a built-in rhythm section of his own, and that left the drummer free not just to be responsible for keeping time, but also to add color. Monk encouraged me to emancipate the drums from their subservient role as just timekeepers. He knew how to compose within the rhythm section by using the bass and drums in conjunction with himself, rather than just behind him.

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Sometimes I heard horn players say he dropped chords in at odd places. A lot of horn players like to hear the chord on the first beat so they can play off of it. But Monk would create a rhythm pattern within which the chord didn't necessarily have to fall on that first beat. He would build a sequence of phrases into a rhythmic design that allowed the rhythm section to create a sound unto itself. This kind of freedom means the rhythm players had to play with the harmonic progression in their heads too, rather than being subservient to the first beat, and that gives the piece more artistic substance.

I last spoke to Monk just after Miles Davis had decided to come out of retirement. I was up at the CBS office, and everybody was talking about how wonderful it would be if Thelonious Monk would start playing again, too. They asked me to sound him out, so I called him around the fall of last year. Since we hadn't spoken in so long, he was delighted to hear from me, but when we got past the social amenities, and I said, "You know, Monk, I was thinking about coming out to say hello and pay you a visit," he said to me, "I don't think that would be advisable." I think he suspected that there was a reason for me calling him, and he was right—it was to say that one of the executives at CBS wanted to make some kind of overture. That was the last time I spoke with him.

Gerry Mulligan (Baritone Sax)
Monk and I didn't play together very much, but we were close neighbors on the West Side in New York, so we saw each other just about every day, and we did spend a lot of time talking. That's why his record company asked us to do an album together [Mulligan Meets Monk]. He was very supportive in the way he accompanied me, but I wish we'd played together more before that, because it took some getting used to his approach. I liked the eccentricities in his progressions and his way of dealing with rhythms. He didn't explain very much; he would make his point musically and assume that everybody had enough wit to follow where he went. If they didn't, it was hard luck.

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It's very difficult for me to separate Monk the piano player from Monk the composer. His piano playing was a direct expression of his attitude toward composition. In both areas, he had a unique sense of how to use space, and I think that's how he had an effect on all of us.

McCoy Tyner (Piano)
Monk was one of my major influences on the piano. I had a special reason for liking his playing: He wasn't excessive in terms of over­comping, and everything he played made sense to me. His playing was interesting because of how he spaced his intervals. It wouldn't always be a whole bunch of notes. Sometimes it'd be three, or even two, notes, but they were always just the right notes. Sound is what Monk produced. He wasn't a college graduate; he had his own school, and that was sound. Monk always liked the bass to be heard; that was very important to him. He never wanted the drums to cover up the bass player. His compositions were also intriguing, but very logical in the way they moved. He'd have four chords to each bar sometimes, and he expected you to hear each one when you played through them.

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Monk seemed to want to keep a distance between himself and certain people, but I saw him as a very sensitive and very good person. Once I was playing opposite him, and I told him, "Monk, I really love you, because what you do is so beautiful." And he said, "Coming from you, I believe it."

Sonny Rollins (Tenor Sax)
The first time I heard Monk was when he was playing on a record with my idol, [tenor saxophonist] Coleman Hawkins. He had a very distinct sound, which I thought was great. There was something there. The first time I played with him was when I was in high school. I was in a band with a friend of mine, a trumpet player named Lowell Lewis, who was rehearsing with Monk at that time. He took me over to Monk's house, and eventually I got a gig with him.

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As a rule, he would bring in some very intricate music. I remember people looking at it and saying, "This is impossible. We can't do this," but by the time rehearsal was over everyone was playing it.

I never really thought about or analyzed his piano style, except in that I liked what he was doing. He was such a personality, and his music was so unique, that I liked him, and that was it. I do remember his placement of chords. If you put a chord in a certain place, it can seem like you're in there a lot, or it can seem like you're not in there at all. That's one thing I liked about his style.

I'm very happy to say that Monk had a lot of respect for me as a musician, which was wonderful. It gave me the incentive to keep on playing even though I had a lot of self­doubts. He wouldn't really give me a lot of instructions, other than to just show me the music. He usually would accept whatever interpretation I put on it. On the other hand, we were playing Monk's music, and that was very definite. You couldn't get too free, because as Coltrane said one time, if you miss a change with Monk, you feel like you've suddenly stepped into an empty elevator shaft. You couldn't get too far from his sound or intention.

Horace Silver (Piano)

I first heard Monk play on his early Blue Note records. I was going out with a girl who was into jazz. She had a record collection, including some stuff by Monk, who I'd never heard of. She played one of them for me, and my first reaction was, this guy is putting everyone on. He can't be serious. It was so different that I couldn't get with it. Eventually I began to realize that he was serious, and I started to listen with more respect. Soon I realized just what a great master musician and stylist he was.

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By the time I saw him live, I was knocked out. Of course, he was fun to watch, too, because he had mannerisms while he was playing that were kind of humorous. He just did what he wanted, and the hell with what people thought. He did his thing, and his thing was so radical that people looked at him like he was crazy or some sort of nut. Even today, you wonder how a man could be so daring and different. He didn't seem to connect to any pianists of the past. It seemed like he just dropped out of the blue!

Phil Woods (Alto Sax)
I only played with Monk when he appeared with a big band in the early '60s, but I can tell you he was a magician. Hall Overton actually rehearsed the band, but we could always tell when we were getting the music right when Monk would start dancing! He knew exactly what he wanted.

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Monk's songs were so pianistic. I remember somebody asking him how he did his bent notes at the piano, and he said he didn't bend them, he used curved pitch! Hall's charts had some tricky stuff, especially when you got into things like the last three choruses of "Little Rootie Tootie," which were just a verbatim transcription of what Monk played as a piano solo.

Before I saw the alto parts I borrowed all of Hall's piano transcriptions; I was very curious about Monk's music, as everybody was, and I found that the best way to get into it was to go right to the keyboard and find out what these voicings were. You couldn't call them chords, but you had to find the prevalent tones in them. You could still call something a G minor, but you found that there was an A and an F# in it you had to home in on.

At the concerts, Monk was at the piano, sticking to you like glue and prodding and pulling you into areas that you didn't think you were capable of reaching, especially with his bizarre percussive little clusters. He triggered whole different areas for improvisation. You found yourself coming up with licks you didn't knew resided in you.

There's a big to-do about his music now that he's dead, but it's still going to take a while for his genius to hit, it's so off-the-wall. His technique was so bizarre, I don't think it would be possible to affect many pianists. In fact, I'm hoping it won't; I can't imagine it working for anyone else.

On his whole-tone runs, for example, he'd go C, D, E, then move his left hand up to the F#. He'd cross in the damnedest spots. He'd give you a Liberace on the whole-tone run, but he wouldn't exactly play it; he'd sort of place his fingers and roll in a stiff, curved position.

Essentially, I think he freed up the piano player in a comping role. He had the terrific left-hand stride if he wanted it. He was a master of space, and he would spread his harmony out over a tenth or twelfth, beyond the old 1-3-5-7. He would play something up high, then do a funny note on the bottom; put it all together, and it would just spell Monk.

Read Chick Corea's thoughts about Thelonious Monk.