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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 Muslim Brotherhood, a radical sect of 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 has control of bop language and phrasing, with a slight strain. He is playing under the direct combined influence of Fats Navarro and Dizzy Gillespie. At twenty-four, Sulieman had not yet created a clear sound or identity, and in Monk's world, he was a survivor. Ten years later in 1957, Sulieman recorded with Coleman Hawkins on a record titled The Hawk Flies High, adding some Clifford Brown but still not having a clear voice. Sulieman still had an odd vibrato and peculiar tone. Having moved to Europe 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, Sulieman again adapts and survives. Later on in the mid 70's Sulieman did some recording as a leader for Steeplechase, but he sounded nervous and seemed to be pushing too hard. Of particular note is that the tune "Eronel," long credited to Monk, was a collaboration with Monk, Sulieman, and possibly Sadik Hakim. I see Sulieman as a jazz journeyman, who worked hard and challenged himself in demanding harmonic environments throughout his life. Playing through never-ending chord progressions as your sole basis for improvisation is a steep hill to climb on trumpet. While Clifford Brown, Dizzy, and later on Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw were masters, this obstacle may be one reason why Sulieman remains in obscurity.

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.

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