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Four In One: Monk From Four Different Angles

Dan Bilawsky By

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Superstitions tend to hold sway over many, otherwise, rational people. Plenty of us avoid walking under ladders, knock on wood and partake in countless other rituals that, while lacking in sound reasoning, certainly make us feel better and bring us comfort in our daily lives. Brides-to-be even fall into this category and believe that it will bring them luck to wear something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue on their wedding day.

Thelonious Monk

While each of these items represents different things to the bride, they also have strong connection to jazz. The Old represents the past—traditions and the giants of jazz that have laid the groundwork for everything that has followed. New often refers to the artists that are toiling away—practicing and creating lasting art today that will, no doubt, be appreciated in the future. The Borrowed part of the saying touches on jazz in many ways. What jazz musician hasn't borrowed a lick from another, taken technical aspects from other players and used them in their own way, borrowed a chord progression to create a new song or even borrowed a song, for personal interpretation, from a different part of the world or genre of music? This brings us to Blue. This word...the color...the aura...and the sound are all at the heart of jazz. Whether we speak directly of the blues and its relationship—historically and currently—to jazz, or we view this color and mood in a broader sense, we still know that it underscores much of what jazz is all about.

For these reasons and to keep the luck and the love coming its way, jazz must continue to wear something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.

While looking for a theme or idea for the first Old, New, Borrowed and Blue column, I was immediately drawn to pianist Thelonious Monk. His work has been front and center lately, due in no small part to Robin D. G. Kelley's biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009). This book gets to the core of who Monk was; gives a detailed account of his performing career and family life; chronicles his professional and financial difficulties; and clears up many misconceptions about the man and his music. While reading this book, I couldn't help but think about my encounters with Monk's music and, ultimately, how he is the perfect figure to truly represent this column's four-pronged discussions.


Monk's famed Town Hall Concert of February, 1959, has received a lot of attention over the past few years. Concord Records reissued this concert—The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall —as part of the Keepnews Collection in 2007, the year Monk would have turned 90 had he still been alive. That same year, pianist Jason Moran dove into material from the concert for a celebration of Monk's ninetieth birthday year at Duke University, and came to Town Hall in late February, 2009 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of this historic performance. Bret Primack, better known as The Jazz Video Guy, put together a two-part video interview with producer Orrin Keepnews, discussing his memories of this concert. Add to all of this the detailed information that Kelley provides in his book and it's nearly impossible not to be astounded at the attention that's been paid to a one-off concert recording that took place half a century ago...except for the fact that it's much more than a one-off concert. While the stories have become part-legend at this point, they are still worth recounting.

Thelonious MonkThe idea was simple: Jules Colomby and promoter Marc Smilow would produce a concert of Monk's music for a large ensemble and Riverside would record it. Hall Overton was chosen as the man to orchestrate Monk's music for a large group, and so it began.

Overton and Monk spent hours and hours seated at two pianos as Monk painstakingly taught his music, bit by bit, to Overton. The two men would then flesh out ideas for how to write this music for a ten-piece band. The music came together, little by little, a band was chosen and rehearsals were set up. While ample rehearsal time was set up for this concert, Kelley's research showed that the musicians were still struggling with this difficult material. According to Keepnews, trumpeter Donald Byrd had some potential conflicts with rehearsals, but Monk insisted that he would get Lee Morgan to do it if Byrd could not. This supposedly got the message across and Byrd made all of the rehearsals.

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