Monk's family moved from North Carolina to New York City while he was still an infant. He began piano lessons around age 12, playing Harlem rent parties then graduating to Harlem clubs such as Minton's Playhouse. Monk often played with Dizzy Gillespie and Coleman Hawkins through the early 1940s.
As Minton's house pianist, Monk was entrenched as THE bebop pianist: At Minton's, with Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Kenny Clarke, and others, he helped codify the new harmonic and rhythmic style of bebop.
Monk was mainly a self-taught pianist, growing a personal style that spanned jazz decades from the "left hand" rhythmic bounce of Harlem stride piano past bebop to modern jazz. Rocking and lurching in rhythm, dropping the bottom out with unexpected empty spaces, Monk kept you guessing.
He made his first recordings in 1947 for Blue Note, for whom he recorded until 1952, unveiling his first wave of classic compositions: "Straight, No Chaser," "Well, You Needn't," "Ruby, My Dear" and his enduring "'Round Midnight."
Monk's recordings between 1952 and 1960 were released by Prestige, Riverside, and Milestone (Disappointed in his sales, in 1955 Prestige sold Monk's contract to Riverside for the value of an $108.27 royalty overpayment). Many of these recordings were masterworks. Monk was finally an overnight success. In 1960, Monk signed with Columbia where he recorded prolifically.
Monk's best foils were tenor saxophonists who could accommodate his unique perspectives on time and structure - Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Charlie Rouse, a Monk staple for more than a decade.
Monk's music is almost its own genre. He often seemed to inhabit his own musical universe at a tangent to, and yet profoundly influencing, every other jazz style. He truly was "the onliest Monk."
| Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1 (Blue Note, 1947) |
Rarely are an artist's first sessions as a leader so important and influential: Introduces the classics "'Round Midnight," "Well, You Needn't," and "Ruby, My Dear," his ballad to his first love, each precision crafted with a modern jazz all-star galaxy.
| Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 2 (Blue Note, 1951) |
Once more with Blakey, Dorham, Roach and the rest, this time on a complete set of originals including "Straight No Chaser" and the challenging "Four in One" and "Criss Cross." Navigating the sharp corners, Monk and "Bags" Jackson swing playful and joyous.
| Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins (Prestige, 1954) |
Two giants - one established, one emerging - in the awakening new music free-spiritedly romp through "I Want to Be Happy," "The Way You Look Tonight" and Monk's "Friday the Thirteenth." Monk's characteristic harmonic and rhythmic inventions seem to feed and flow through Rollins' exhaustive streams of ideas.
| Plays Duke Ellington (Riverside, 1955) |
Purely as pianist: With Kenny Clarke and Oscar Pettiford, Monk mines new treasure from a revelatory, affectionate set of familiar Ellingtonia. "It Don?t Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and Monk swings for sure. Perhaps the best introduction to Monk?s piano style.
| Brilliant Corners (1956, Milestone) |
A major bebop milestone in terms of personnel (Rollins, Pettiford, Roach, plus echoes of an era from Clark Terry on "Bemsha Swing") and program (the title track and "Pannonica," where Monk twinkles on archaic celeste). "I Surrender, Dear" is one of Monk's most strong yet tender solos.
| Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane (Milestone, 1957) |
Mainly recorded during a legendary engagement at the Five Spot, Coltrane proves one of the few musicians who could double Monk in "Trinkle, Tinkle" and sing suitably sweet and low to "Ruby, My Dear." 'Trane also pairs with Coleman Hawkins on two alternates from the larger Monk's Music ensemble sessions.
| Monk's Music (Riverside, 1957) |
Monk revisits (as he often did) some of what had become his standards, with Hawk and 'Trane as twin tenors and Blakey dropping rhythmic bombs like landmines in the crags and hollows of Monk's music. The ultimate version of "Well, You Needn't" and a romantic "Ruby, My Dear" with Hawkins.
| Thelonious Alone in San Francisco (Riverside, 1959) |
Languid and lyrical solo reflections upon "Blue Monk," "Pannonica" and "Ruby, My Dear," the rare "Bluehawk" and flourished pop standards ("Everything Happens to Me," "You Took the Words Right Out of My Heart"), crowned with five minutes of sustained brilliant "Reflections."
| Monk?s Dream (Columbia, 1962) |
His first Columbia record, a comfortable archetype: Re-explored compositions, bright solo pieces (the exquisite "Body and Soul" and "Just a Gigolo"), and funky blues, plus one or two new recordings (the joyful "Bright Mississippi"). Features one of his longest-running bands (Rouse, John Ore, Frankie Dunlop).
| Big Band and Quartet Live in Concert (Columbia, 1963) |
Solo, quartet, and large ensemble including Thad Jones, Phil Woods, and Monk devotee Steve Lacy. Several of Hall Overton's orchestrations, voiced and adapted from the piano and horn charts on Monk?s original piece, are amazing (the complex "Four in One" and sassy "I Mean You").
| Solo Monk (Columbia, 1964) |
Echoes of powerful stride piano thunder through a repertoire of originals and original takes on "These Foolish Things," "I'm Confessin'" and other classics that illuminate this most modern pianist's deep connection to Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Monk's only solo album for Columbia.
| Underground (Columbia, 1967) |
Four new originals, including "Ugly Beauty," the new blues "Raise Four" and the oft-covered "Green Chimneys," plus the rarity of Monk with vocals as Jon Hendricks chirps into "In Walked Bud." "Thelonious" would come full circle, appearing on Genius Volume 1 , here, and on Monk's last recording (in 1972 with the Giants of Jazz).
Discuss your favorite Thelonious Monk album at the AAJ Bulletin Board .
William P. Gottlieb