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Thelonious Monk

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Thelious Junior (1917 - 1982) Pianist and composer

Audio Feature Round Midnight
Recorded November 19, 1968
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)

NPR Audio Feature The NPR 100: "'Round Midnight"
Music critic Tom Moon has the story of this Thelonious Monk gem, a selection from National Public Radio's list of the 100 most important American musical recordings of the 20th Century.

Thelonious Monk
Image courtesy of William Gottlieb
Although he remained long misunderstood and little known, both his playing and his compositions had a formative influence on modern jazz. When Monk was four his family moved to New York, which was his home until he retired. In the early 1940s he worked as a sideman in jazz groups and became house pianist at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. Here he encouraged the young jazz pianist Bud Powell (who achieved success far earlier than Monk himself) and was first recorded in 1941 in Minton's house quartet, when Charlie Christian was making a guest appearance. In these and similar performances with visiting musicians, such as Don Byas, Roy Eldridge, and Helen Humes, Monk helped to formulate the emerging bop style.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library: Thelonious Monk
NPR's Murray Horwitz and jazz critic and poet AB Spellman recommend Thelonious Himself (Riverside/Original Jazz Classics).

In 1944 Monk made his first known visit to a recording studio, as a member of the Coleman Hawkins Quartet; in the same year his well-known tune Round about Midnight was recorded by Cootie Williams, who collaborated with him in its composition. By this time Monk was playing at the Spotlite Club on 52nd Street with Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra. Three years later, in 1947, Monk made the first recordings under his own name in a sextet session for Blue Note, which included his compositions Humph and Thelonious. These and five other recordings issued by Blue Note between 1947 and 1952, including such masterpieces as Evidence, Criss Cross, and a bizarre arrangement of Carolina Moon, are regarded as the first characteristic works of Monk's output, along with the recordings he made as a sideman for Charlie Parker in 1950, which included Bloomdido and My Melancholy Baby.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library: Thelonious Monk
NPR's Murray Horwitz and jazz critic and poet AB Spellman recommend the album The Genius of Modern Music (Blue Note) by Thelonious Monk.

In 1952 Monk acquired a contract from Prestige Records, with which he remained associated for three years. Although this was perhaps the leanest period in his career in terms of live performances, he recorded such notable works as the remarkable Little Rootie Tootie (dedicated to his son), a daring version of Jerome Kern's Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and perhaps his finest solo performance, Bags' Groove, in a memorable session with the Miles Davis All Stars on Christmas Eve 1954. Two months earlier he had recorded an album with Sonny Rollins, and in June 1954 he made his first solo album, in Paris for Swing Records. This album offers great insight into the audacity of Monk's music, his version of Eronel in particular being outstanding for its considerable pianistic demands.

In 1955 Prestige, dissatisfied with the low sales of Monk's recordings, sold his contract to Riverside Records. Monk remained with Riverside until 1961. His first two recording sessions were conceived with the intent of introducing his music to a wider audience, and were given a lukewarm reception by the critics. Between these two dates Monk also recorded his highly complex piece Gallop's Gallop with Gigi Gryce Signa Records (1955) and made an album with Art Blakey for Atlantic (1957). This latter recording and three of his next albums for Riverside (Brilliant Corners, Thelonious Himself, and Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane) were masterpieces, and Monk became the most acclaimed and controversial jazz improviser of the late 1950s almost overnight.

Monk's professional career now took a dramatic turn for the better, and in 1957 he began appearing regularly with Coltrane, Wilbur Ware, and Shadow Wilson at the Five Spot in New York. During the next few years his group included such noteworthy musicians as Johnny Griffin, Roy Haynes, and Charlie Rouse, his lifelong associate. He began to tour the USA regularly and also to appear in Europe. Perhaps his most memorable performance of this period was in 1959 at Town Hall, New York, where he appeared with an orchestra playing his compositions in skillful arrangements by Hall Overton. He also continued to issue albums for Riverside.

In 1962 Monk's popularity was such that he was put under contract by Columbia records. He was also made the subject of a cover story by Time (1964), an honor bestowed on only three other jazz musicians. He made several overseas tours, including visits to Mexico and Japan. Around 1970 he disbanded his group and in 1971-2 worked in the Giants of Jazz together with Dizzy Gillespie, Kai Winding, Sonny Stitt, Al Mc Kibbon, and Art Blakey. In November 1971 he made solo and trio recordings for Black Lion Records in London, which some critics felt heralded a new era in his development, but shortly afterwards he suddenly retired from public view. He made three final performances with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall, and appeared with a quartet at the Newport Jazz Festival New York in 1975 and in 1976, but otherwise spent his final years in seclusion in Weehawken, New Jersey, at the home of the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, his lifelong friend and patron.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For personal, non-commercial use only. Copying or other reproduction is prohibited.
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