Thelonious Sphere Monk (October 10, 1917 – February 17, 1982) was an American jazz pianist and composer considered "one of the giants of American music". Monk had a unique improvisational style and made numerous contributions to the standard jazz repertoire, including "Epistrophy", "'Round Midnight", "Blue Monk", "Straight, No Chaser" and "Well, You Needn't". Monk is the second most recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington, which is particularly remarkable as Ellington composed over 1,000 songs while Monk wrote about 70.
Often regarded as a founder of bebop, Monk's playing later evolved away from that style. His compositions and improvisations are full of dissonant harmonies and angular melodic twists, and are consistent with Monk's unorthodox approach to the piano, which combined a highly percussive attack with abrupt, dramatic use of silences and hesitations.
Monk's manner was idiosyncratic. Visually, he was renowned for his distinctive style in suits, hats and sunglasses. He was also noted for the fact that at times, while the other musicians in the band continued playing, he would stop, stand up from the keyboard and dance for a few moments before returning to the piano. One of his regular dances consisted of continuously turning clockwise, which has drawn comparisons to ring-shout and Sufi whirling.
He is one of five jazz musicians to have been featured on the cover of Time (the other four being Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis, and Dave Brubeck) as of 2010.
Thelonious Monk was born October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the son of Thelonious and Barbara Monk, two years after his sister Marion. A brother, Thomas, was born in January 1920. In 1922, the family moved to 243 West 63rd Street, in Manhattan, New York City. Monk started playing the piano at the age of six. Although he had some formal training and eavesdropped on his sister's piano lessons, he was largely self-taught. Monk attended Stuyvesant High School, but did not graduate.
He toured with an evangelist in his teens, playing the church organ, and in his late teens he began to find work playing jazz.
In the early to mid 1940s, Monk was the house pianist at Minton's Playhouse, a Manhattan nightclub. Much of Monk's style was developed during his time at Minton's, when he participated in after-hours "cutting competitions" which featured many leading jazz soloists of the time. The Minton's scene was crucial in the formulation of bebop and it brought Monk into close contact with other leading exponents of the emerging idiom, including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, Charlie Parker and later, Miles Davis. Monk is believed to be the pianist featured on recordings Jerry Newman made around 1941 at the club. Monk's style at this time was later described as "hard-swinging," with the addition of runs in the style of Art Tatum. Monk's stated influences included Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and other early stride pianists. In the documentary Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, it is stated that Monk lived in the same neighborhood in New York City as Johnson and knew him as a teenager.
Mary Lou Williams, among others, spoke of Monk's rich inventiveness in this period, and how such invention was vital for musicians since at the time it was common for fellow musicians to incorporate overheard musical ideas into their own works without giving due credit. "So, the boppers worked out a music that was hard to steal. I'll say this for the `leeches', though: they tried. I've seen them in Minton's busily writing on their shirt cuffs or scribbling on the tablecloth. And even our own guys, I'm afraid, did not give Monk the credit he had coming. Why, they even stole his idea of the beret and bop glasses.
In 1944 Monk made his first studio recordings with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet. Hawkins was among the first prominent jazz musicians to promote Monk, and Monk later returned the favor by inviting Hawkins to join him on the 1957 session with John Coltrane. Monk made his first recordings as leader for Blue Note in 1947 (later anthologised on Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1) which showcased his talents as a composer of original melodies for improvisation. Monk married Nellie Smith the same year, and in 1949 the couple had a son, T. S. Monk, who is a jazz drummer. A daughter, Barbara (affectionately known as Boo-Boo), was born in 1953.
In August 1951, New York City police searched a parked car occupied by Monk and friend Bud Powell. The police found narcotics in the car, presumed to have belonged to Powell. Monk refused to testify against his friend, so the police confiscated his New York City Cabaret Card. Without the all-important cabaret card he was unable to play in any New York venue where liquor was served, and this severely restricted his ability to perform for several crucial years. Monk spent most of the early and mid-1950s composing, recording, and performing at theaters and out-of-town gigs.
After his cycle of intermittent recording sessions for Blue Note during 1947–1952, he was under contract to Prestige Records for the following two years. With Prestige he cut several highly significant, but at the time under-recognized, albums, including collaborations with saxophonist Sonny Rollins and drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach. In 1954, Monk participated in a Christmas Eve session which produced most of the albums Bags' Groove and Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants by Miles Davis. Davis found Monk's idiosyncratic accompaniment style difficult to improvise over and asked him to lay out (not accompany), which almost brought them to blows. However, in Miles Davis' autobiography Miles, Davis claims that the anger and tension between Monk and himself never took place and that the claims of blows being exchanged were "rumors" and a "misunderstanding".
In 1954, Monk paid his first visit to Europe, performing and recording in Paris. Backstage Mary Lou Williams introduced him to Baroness Pannonica "Nica" de Koenigswarter, a member of the Rothschild family and a patroness of several New York City jazz musicians. She would be a close friend for the rest of Monk's life, including taking responsibility for him when she and Monk were charged with marijuana.
At the time of his signing to Riverside, Monk was highly regarded by his peers and by some critics, but his records did not sell in significant numbers, and his music was still regarded as too "difficult" for mass-market acceptance. Indeed, with Monk's consent, Riverside had managed to buy out his previous Prestige contract for a mere $108.24. He willingly recorded two albums of jazz standards as a means of increasing his profile. The first of these, Thelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington, featuring bass innovator Oscar Pettiford and drummer Kenny Clarke, included Ellington pieces "Caravan" and "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)".
On the 1956 LP Brilliant Corners, Monk recorded his own music. The complex title track, which featured tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, was so difficult to play that the final version had to be edited together from multiple takes. The album, however, was largely regarded as the first success for Monk; according to Orrin Keepnews, "It was the first that made a real splash.
After having his cabaret card restored, Monk relaunched his New York career with a landmark six-month residency at the Five Spot Cafe in New York beginning in June 1957, leading a quartet with John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Wilbur Ware on bass, and Shadow Wilson on drums. Unfortunately little of this group's music was documented due to contractual problems, Coltrane being signed to Prestige at the time. One short studio session was made for Riverside (only released later by its subsidiary Jazzland in 1961) and a larger group recording featuring Coltrane was split between that album and Monk's Music; an amateur tape from the Five Spot (not the original residency, but a later September 1958 reunion with Coltrane sitting in for Johnny Griffin) was issued on Blue Note in 1993; and a recording of the quartet performing at a Carnegie Hall concert on November 29, previously "rumoured to exist", was recorded in high fidelity by Voice of America, rediscovered in the collection of the Library of Congress in 2005 and released by Blue Note.
"Crepuscule With Nellie", recorded in 1957, "was Monk's only, what's called through-composed composition, meaning that there is no improvising. It is Monk's concerto, if you will, and in some ways it speaks for itself. But he wrote it very, very carefully and very deliberately and really struggled to make it sound the way it sounds. [... I]t was his love song for Nellie," said biographer Kelley in an interview.
The Five Spot residency ended Christmas 1957, Coltrane left to rejoin Miles Davis's seminal sextet, and the band was effectively disbanded. Monk did not form another long-term band until June 1958, when he began a second residency at the Five Spot, again with a quartet, this time with Griffin (and later Charlie Rouse) on tenor, Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums.
On October 15, 1958, the residency having ended and en route to a week-long engagement for the quartet at the Comedy Club in Baltimore, Maryland, Monk and de Koenigswarter were detained by police in Wilmington, Delaware. When Monk refused to answer the policemen's questions or cooperate with them, they beat him with a blackjack. Though the police were authorized to search the vehicle and found narcotics in suitcases held in the trunk of the Baroness's car, Judge Christie of the Delaware Superior Court ruled that the unlawful detention of the pair, and the beating of Monk, rendered the consent to the search void as given under duress. Monk was represented by Theophilus Nix, the second African-American member of the Delaware Bar Association.
After extended negotiations, Monk signed in 1962 to Columbia Records, one of the big four American record labels of the day along with RCA Victor, Capitol, and Decca. Monk's relationship with Riverside had soured over disagreements concerning royalty payments and had concluded with a brace of European live albums; he had not recorded a studio album since 5 by Monk by 5 in June 1959.
Working with producer Teo Macero on his debut for the label, the sessions in the first week of November had a stable line-up that had been with him for two years, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse (who worked with Monk from 1959 to 1970), bassist John Ore, and drummer Frankie Dunlop. Monk's Dream, his earliest Columbia album, was released in 1963.
Columbia's resources allowed Monk to be promoted more widely than earlier in his career. Monk's Dream would remain the best-selling LP of his lifetime, and on February 28, 1964, Monk appeared on the cover of Time magazine, being featured in the article, "The Loneliest Monk". He continued to record a number of well-reviewed studio albums, particularly Criss Cross, also from 1963, and Underground, from 1968. But by the Columbia years his compositional output was limited, and only his final Columbia studio record Underground featured a substantial number of new tunes, including his only waltz time piece, "Ugly Beauty".
As had been the case with Riverside, his period with Columbia Records contains many live albums, including Miles and Monk at Newport (1963), Live at the It Club and Live at the Jazz Workshop, both recorded in 1964, the latter not being released until 1982. After the departure of Ore and Dunlop, the remainder of the rhythm section in Monk's quartet during the bulk of his Columbia period was Larry Gales on bass and Ben Riley on drums, both of whom joined in 1964, Along with Rouse, they remained with Monk for over four years, his longest-serving band.
According to biographer Kelley, the 1964 Time appearance came because "Barry Farrell, who wrote the cover story, wanted to write about a jazz musician and almost by default Monk was chosen, because they thought Ray Charles and Miles Davis were too controversial. ... [Monk] wasn't so political. [...O]f course, I challenge that [in the biography]," said Kelley.
Monk had disappeared from the scene by the mid-1970s, and made only a small number of appearances during the final decade of his life. His last studio recordings as a leader were made in November 1971 for the English Black Lion label, near the end of a worldwide tour with "The Giants of Jazz," a group which included Dizzy Gillespie, Kai Winding, Sonny Stitt, Al McKibbon and Art Blakey. Bassist Al McKibbon, who had known Monk for over twenty years and played on his final tour in 1971, later said: "On that tour Monk said about two words. I mean literally maybe two words. He didn't say 'Good morning', 'Goodnight', 'What time?' Nothing. Why, I don't know. He sent word back after the tour was over that the reason he couldn't communicate or play was that Art Blakey and I were so ugly." A different side of Monk is revealed in Lewis Porter's biography, John Coltrane: His Life and Music; Coltrane states: "Monk is exactly the opposite of Miles [Davis]: he talks about music all the time, and he wants so much for you to understand that if, by chance, you ask him something, he'll spend hours if necessary to explain it to you.
The documentary film Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988) attributes Monk's quirky behaviour to mental illness. In the film, Monk's son, T. S. Monk, says that his father sometimes did not recognize him, and he reports that Monk was hospitalized on several occasions due to an unspecified mental illness that worsened in the late 1960s. No reports or diagnoses were ever publicized, but Monk would often become excited for two or three days, pace for days after that, after which he would withdraw and stop speaking. Physicians recommended electroconvulsive therapy as a treatment option for Monk's illness, but his family would not allow it; antipsychotics and lithium were prescribed instead. Other theories abound: Leslie Gourse, author of the book Straight, No Chaser: The Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk (1997), reported that at least one of Monk's psychiatrists failed to find evidence of manic depression or schizophrenia. Another physician maintains that Monk was misdiagnosed and prescribed drugs during his hospital stay that may have caused brain damage.
As his health declined, Monk's last six years were spent as a guest in the New Jersey home of his long-standing patron and friend, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who had also nursed Charlie Parker during his final illness. Monk didn't play the piano during this time, even though one was present in his room, and he spoke to few visitors. He died of a stroke on February 17, 1982, and was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. In 1993, he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2006, Monk was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation.
Art Blakey reports that Monk was excellent at both chess and checkers (draughts).
Thelonious Sphere Monk (Rocky Mount (Carolina del Norte), 10 de octubre de 1917 - Weehawken (Nueva Jersey), 17 de febrero de 1982), Thelonious Monk, pianista y compositor estadounidense de jazz.
Su estilo interpretativo y compositivo, formado plenamente en 1947, apenas varió en los 25 años siguientes. Pianista fundador del bebop, tocó también bajo el influjo del hard bop y del jazz modal. Es conocido por su estilo único de improvisación, así como por haber compuesto varios temas clásicos del repertorio jazzístico, destacando "Round About Midnight", "Straight No Chaser", "52nd Street Theme" y "Blue Monk".
Nacido en Rocky Mount, en Carolina del Norte, su familia se trasladó poco después a Manhattan, en Nueva York; en ese apartamento viviría siempre hasta el final de sus días. Comenzó a tocar el piano a la edad de seis años, y, aunque recibió alguna educación musical, fue esencialmente un autodidacta; sus primeras influencias fueron dos de los grandes pianistas de corte stride, James P. Johnson y Willie 'the lion' Smith. Durante su adolescencia comenzó a trabajar en algunos rent parties tocando el órgano y el piano en la iglesia baptista. Estudió en el instituto Stuyvesant, si bien nunca llegó a graduarse.
En 1935 decidió irse de viaje a recorrer mundo acompañando con el piano a un predicador evangelista. Después de dos años, regresó a su ciudad y formó su propio cuarteto, actuando en diversos clubes hasta que en 1941 el baterista Kenny Clark lo eligió como pianista de la casa para tocar en el Minton's Playhouse, el legendario club de Manhattan en el que se engendraría el bebop.
Su estilo en la época es descrito como "hard-swinging", con marcadas influencias de Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson y otros pianistas.
Durante su estancia en Minton's, Monk fue perfeccionando su estilo único, participando en sesiones llamada "cutting competitions", con los más renombrados solistas de la época. Durante esos años, Monk entró en contacto con músicos como Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson y John Coltrane, que estaban sentando las bases del bebop. En 1944 realizó sus primeras grabaciones con el Coleman Hawkins Quartet. En 1947 grabó por primera vez como líder de su propia banda, y publicó su LP de debut, Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1, que mostraba su talento tanto para la composición como para la improvisación. Ese mismo año se casó con Nellie Smith, y en 1949 el matrimonio tuvo un hijo, T.S. Monk, que sería baterista de jazz. Su hija Barbara nació en 1953.
En agosto de 1951, fue arrestado por la policía de Nueva York, acusado de posesión de narcóticos, pues se negó a denunciar a su amigo, el también pianista Bud Powell, al que presumiblemente pertenecía la droga. Se le retiró el permiso para actuar en locales nocturnos en que se despachase alcohol (una autorización, el "New York City Cabaret Card", que era expedida por la policía). Pasó la primera mitad de los años 50 componiendo, grabando discos y actuando en teatros y giras fuera de la ciudad.
Tras grabar varios discos para Blue Note entre 1947 y 1952, firmó un contrato con Prestige, para la que grabó entre 1952 y 1954 algunos de sus discos más importantes, incluyendo colaboraciones con el saxofonista Sonny Rollins y con el baterista Art Blakey. El productor Orrin Keepnews, de Riverside Records, le persuadió de que grabase un disco con temas de Duke Ellington y otro con estándares, para que su música se hiciese más accesible al público medio de jazz. En 1956 grabó el clásico Brilliant Corners y a partir del año siguiente los cambios en su vida se sucedieron.
Monk fue contratado por el Five Spot y allí formaría parte de un cuarteto que contaría con el saxofonista John Coltrane. Como consecuencia de estas actuaciones, la crítica y el público de jazz lo reconocerían por fin como un maestro. El hasta entonces carácter único de su música, que tan difícil era de asumir por una audiencia que tenía como modelo a Bud Powell, se convirtió en 1957 en un motivo de admiración. De repente, Monk se convirtió en una celebridad y su estatus no cambiaría hasta el final de su carrera.
En 1959, su cuarteto contó con la participación del saxofonista tenor Johnny Griffin en 1959 apareció con una orquesta en el Town Hall; en 1962 firmó con Columbia y dos años después fue portada de la revista Time. Un segundo concierto con orquesta fue celebrado en 1962, resultando mejor que el primero, por lo que Monk estaría constantemente de gira durante los años sesenta con su cuarteto, ahora con el tenor Charlie Rouse.
Tocó con los Giants of Jazz durante 1971-1972, y en 1973, repentinamente, se retiró. Monk padecía de una enfermedad mental y, aparte de unas apariciones especiales a mediados de los setenta, vivió recluido el resto de su vida.