Monk's Trumpets

Matt Lavelle By

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I like all instruments as long as they're played right. —Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk's recording career as a leader only lasted twenty-four years, from 1947 to 1971. When it comes to horn players, most people interested in Monk associate him with the tenor saxophone, and rightfully so as Johnny Griffin, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Charlie Rouse stand tall in Monk's recorded legacy. The alto saxophone was present from his first record as a leader, but no alto players were able to contribute substantially beyond strong work as sidemen. Gigi Gryce stands out as the only alto player to play with Monk in a quartet format on a fascinating record he led called Nica's Tempo, which includes four Monk compositions. Trumpet players also had difficulty establishing themselves in Monk's world. More questions remain as to why the alto saxophone and trumpet didn't work as well as the tenor in Monk's music, but that is not my goal here. What follows is an examination of the trumpet players that worked for Monk, both lesser and well-known, and what their musical experience was in Monk's musical world.

Thelonious Monk crossed paths with trumpet players at Minton's Playhouse including Joe Guy, Hot Lips Page, and Roy Eldridge. For his first record as a leader on Blue Note, Monk hired seventeen-year-old alto player Danny Quebec West, cousin of Ike Quebec. On trumpet, Monk enlisted twenty-four- year-old Idrees Sulieman (1923-2002). Sulieman was born Leonard Graham but changed his name after joining the Islamic faith. Sulieman previously played with the Earl Hines big band while both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were in the ensemble. Sulieman's most significant solo with Monk is on the pianist's original "Humph." A Monk adaption of rhythm changes, it sounds like advanced bop with some call and response built into the melody. Sulieman had one chorus where he had control of bop language and phrasing. His playing contained the influence of Fats Navarro and Dizzy Gillespie. Ten years later in 1957, Sulieman recorded with Coleman Hawkins on a record titled The Hawk Flies High, adding some Clifford Brown . He moved to Europe, and in 1961 Sulieman also recorded with Eric Dolphy on sessions that were later released as the Stockholm Sessions, now in a musical environment possibly even more challenging than Monk's. Later on in the mid 70's Sulieman did some recording as a leader for Steeplechase. Of particular note is that the tune "Eronel," long credited to Monk, was a collaboration with Monk, Sulieman, and possibly Sadik Hakim. Sulieman earned the praise of Randy Weston, Mary Lou Williams, and Dizzy Gillespie for his tone and chord skill navigation. There's a book out with more information on him titled Upright Bass, The Musical Life and Legacy of Jamil Nasser.

Just over a month later Monk recorded more music for Blue Note, but hired twenty-two-year-old Sahib Shihab (Edmund Gregory) on alto and twenty-eight-year-old George "Flip" Taitt on trumpet, again going with the bop front line format. Taitt was a swing trumpet player who tried to jump off a cliff into Monk's music. He had a sound but struggled as did seemingly everyone on some level that worked with Monk. On "In Walked Bud," Taitt only solos on the A section, having trouble with all the bridges on that date. Monk wrote a complicated piece called "Who Knows?" for the session that took eight attempts. On Taitt's one solo chorus, like Sulieman, he survives but has a more pressing time. The challenge of the piece is the placement of the chords. After an opening measure of G minor 7, the next chord F Sharp 7 comes in on the third beat of the second measure. At a fast tempo, this is an exceptionally tricky environment to build ideas in if you're tethered exclusively to the chord structure. While Monk's bop line melody zips by, the real melody is in the movement of the chords. "Who Knows?" might better be titled "Where's Coltrane?" who excelled with these type of challenges. As for Taitt, Robin Kelley had no more information on him. I hope in his musical life he found other environments to encourage his natural relationship with music.

Monk's last session for Blue Note was in 1952 with Max Roach, Lucky Thompson on tenor, Lou Donaldson on alto, and twenty- eight year Kenny Dorham (1924-1972) on trumpet. Dorham had already replaced Miles Davis with Charlie Parker where he spent a year. He came to this session with his sound and playing style intact. On "Skippy," Dorham handles the up-tempo "Tea for Two" chord changes with ease and sounds relaxed despite the speed. On "Hornin' In," Dorham only gets to solo over the A section. As he works through Monk's chords, his response is not to attack, but instead to let it happen. He doesn't reach for over-complex ideas. It's a Charlie Rouse approach and keeps the vibe of the piece flowing. On the sixteen-bar piece titled "Sixteen," Monk mercifully calls a medium tempo for a dissonant and difficult line. Dorham only gets one solo chorus but takes his time, and swings with feeling. "Let's Cool One" has Dorham with an opening solo chorus where he sounds like Miles Davis with Charlie Parker but with Dorham's sound. Later on, Dorham would have to fill another player's shoes when he replaced Clifford Brown with Max Roach after Clifford's tragic death, a near impossible task. From 1958-1964 he recorded as a leader. In a continuation of the tragic lives of jazz trumpet players, Dorham suffered kidney disease and was forced to curtail his playing. He worked at the post office and Manny's Music store while he also did some freelance writing for Downbeat, going out of his way to condemn free jazz players, especially Giuseppi Logan in a scathing review. Dorham succumbed to the illness in 1972 at 48 years old, truly underrated. He was one of the trumpet players to successfully navigate a course through Monk's music.

Next up we reach trumpet player Ray Copeland (1926-1984), recording with Monk for the Prestige label in a quintet in 1954 while working at a day job in a paper company. Highlights include Copeland handling a relatively brisk version of Monk's "Hackensack" and some choice blues phrasing on "Locomotive." Copeland studied classical trumpet and was eventually able to work in music full time by 1955. He had a fat, bright, and pungent tone and had by 1954 created a style that worked for him combining bop with some swing and blues elements. The only stylistic influences I can detect are Charlie Shavers and Clifford Brown, but Copeland's tone is less distinctive. He had a personal inner tempo and superimposed his playing on top of Monk rather than more personal interaction. In 1957 Copeland played on a famous Monk album titled "Monk's Music" with none other than Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane on tenors. He solos directly after Coltrane on "Well You Needn't" and "Epistrophy." On both solos, Monk strolls leaving Copeland in a trio format where Art Blakey generates an enormous feeling of swing. In Robin Kelley's book on Monk, we learn that Monk warned Copeland that elaborate runs in the upper register were impractical because it left him no time to breathe. Monk would later say that extreme range playing took away Dizzy's tone. Copeland also worked with Monk outside the studio on live dates. In 1957 he recorded a record with Phil Woods, where he continues to reach into the upper register where he escapes all of his influences. On "Green Pines," he uses a Harmon mute but plays as if he is playing an open horn, dodging the penchant of players for playing a Miles type number. In the process, he sounds more like Lee Morgan who played with a Harmon mute loud and directly into the microphone, whereas Miles played softly. In 1964, Copeland recorded with pianist Randy Weston where he sounds like Jon Faddis when Faddis doesn't play like Dizzy Gillespie, though Faddis didn't start recording until 1969! On flugelhorn, Copeland dodges his influences. Playing flugelhorn is choosing to embrace sound over range, except in the case of Red Rodney who was able to do both.

In 1967 Monk insisted to George Wein that Copeland join a European tour as part of a larger ensemble over Clark Terry. Both Copeland and Terry ended up with Monk in a nonet performance captured on November 3rd of that year in Paris with interesting results. Throughout the concert there is creative tension between Monk and Copeland. On "We See," Copeland starts his solo without Monk behind him and uses the melody but on the bridge resorts to total and aggressive chord change outlining. He then enters a type of abyss where he vacillates between fast playing and upper register explorations that don't sound connected to the melody or Monk himself. On "Epistrophy," Copeland switches to flugel. On his solo, Monk tries to connect with him but it sounds like they each can't hear or aren't listening to each other, much like a musical disagreement. Copeland ends up going his own way, but has a hard time owning the situation like Johnny Griffin. On "Oska-T," Copeland and Monk can't connect and the modal environment seems to feel uncomfortable for Copeland, whose playing style is based on more distinct chordal movement. Jimmy Cleveland gives us a rare chance to hear a trombone solo with Monk. He starts off very relaxed, almost too much, then switches to high range and fast technical playing, almost in retaliation against himself, or perhaps he just changed his mind or suddenly felt a different gear. Clark Terry later solos on "Evidence," mostly in a trio format in one of the most adventurous solos of his career. Clark uses his technique, sound and style aggressively challenging his own boundaries, validating Charles Mingus' claim that with Clark he could make the quintessential avant-garde album. Clark returns to solo on "Blue Monk" using his plunger where he and Monk connect effectively while both being true to themselves. The blues of course become the common ground that seems to unite all jazz musicians. Throughout this concert there seems to be a creative tension between Monk and all the horn players. As the horns are placed or pushed outside their comfort zones, they respond with technical assaults, trying to overcome the tension with virtuosity.

Getting back to Copeland, he was also a teacher and composer, premiering his "Classical Jazz suite in six movements" at Lincoln Center in 1970. In 1974 he published a book called the Ray Copeland Approach to the Creative Art of Jazz Improvisation. Copeland was also the musical director of the great album by Archie Shepp titled Attica Blues. Mr. Shepp told me that he had enormous respect for Copeland and at one point they both had to overcome physical diversity that challenged their embouchures. A last shocking fact is that while appearing on 101 recordings, Copeland never recorded as a leader. His son was the late drummer Keith Copeland.
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