Monk's Trumpets

Matt Lavelle By

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Donald Byrd (1932-2017) holds a unique place in jazz history. Before he recorded with Monk's ten-member ensemble at a live concert at Town Hall in 1959 for Riverside records at twenty-six years old, he had already recorded seven albums as a leader and appeared as a sideman on over fifty recordings. Byrd was in huge demand as a sideman who began recording at twenty-three in 1955. He could adapt to the music of many different musicians and bring his version of bop with a unique tone and pacing. On "Sweet Sapphire Blues" as a sideman with John Coltrane, he plays an almost five-minute solo where he attempts Coltrane's sheets of sound on trumpet. Especially interesting is what happened when Byrd entered Monk's house. According to Robin Kelley's research, Monk was especially hard on Byrd, telling him not to play so loud like he was playing alone, and especially not to solo exclusively on the changes. When Byrd questioned him as to why, Monk told him to focus on the melody. During the Town Hall concert, Byrd seems to be on the fence between his approach and Monk's perspective. On "Friday The Thirteenth," Byrd takes his time and plays his with his sound and style, adapting to the environment, but he only has to play over four descending chords. The melody is a type of haunting bop line that lets Byrd remain intact. On "Little Rootie Tootie," Byrd plays the changes clean and fast but is unable to utilize the melodic content. When Monk lays out towards the end of the solo, Byrd continues playing the changes where that may have been the opportunity to play more melodically. On "Off Minor," Byrd takes a Charlie Rouse approach but the changes playing is still apparent. Monk again gives him a trio section halfway through his solo, but he continues to outline the changes. The challenge remains to any musician playing Monk's music to use the melody as the primary basis for improvisation. The key may be that Monk's songs contain a unique rhythmic swing that can be used as a basis for the improvisation, instead of being compelled to spell out each chord change. From 1958 to 1976 Byrd recorded almost exclusively for Blue Note and also became an educator. During the 70's Byrd made a surprising turn to a rhythm and blues focus into a form of pop-jazz that sold quite well, using his students from Howard University that eventually formed a separate project called the Blackbyrds. Byrd did return to straight-ahead playing part-time while continuing to teach in the final stage of his life.

None of the trumpet players that worked for Monk reached as deep an immersion level as Thad Jones (1923-1986). Thad hailed from the famous jazz family in Detroit with his older brother, pianist Hank Jones, and younger brother, drummer Elvin Jones. He became famous with the Count Basie Orchestra as a featured soloist and arranger where he worked from 1954-1963. During this period, Jones recorded as a leader on trumpet for Charles Mingus' Debut label in 1954 and Blue Note in 1956. In 1959, Orrin Keepnews from Riverside records and Monk agreed to add thirty-six year old Thad to Monk's group, with exciting results. In Robin Kelly's book on Monk, Monk is quoted as saying Jones was a better trumpet player than Miles Davis. The record, titled Five by Monk by Five, features Jones extensively as well as tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. Known to switch between trumpet, flugelhorn, and cornet, Jones brought his cornet where his crisp, burnished, crackling and fat tone brought out a personality in Monk's music unlike anything in Monk's other recorded work. Throughout the date, Jones becomes the leading melodic voice. During Jones's solos, Monk often starts comping, and then leaves Jones in a trio format. Monk does this to trumpet players quite often. On "I Mean You," Jones has a second solo in trio format where he slowly adds and builds into a display of his power from his big band work. The solo is a masterpiece of tension and release as if arranged for a large ensemble. On ":Ask Me Now," Jones's melodic lead voice on a Monk ballad is another prominent feature. Throughout the recording, Jones maintains his identity while successfully navigating Monk's compositions, all without being compelled to outline each chord change. In 1963, forty year old Jones was hired and featured in a Monk led big band in a live concert at Lincoln Center. This performance is the quintessential moment for Monk in his relationship with the trumpet, again with Jones on cornet. Jones plays so much he could have received featured billing. On the opening piece "Bye-ya," after a one minute statement of the melody, Jones plays the first solo of the concert, lasting a full three minutes. Halfway through Monk lays out giving Jones a trio format, where Jones's lyricism is only enhanced, as he is in total control. On the following piece, "I Mean You," after a one minute statement of the melody, it is Jones again with a lead off solo lasting three minutes. This time Jones has an orchestrated big band background to play over where he sounds especially comfortable, and it's seen that the band's rehearsal time paid off. Monk comps for a chorus and again leaves Jones in a trio formation where he is able to convey the melody. Jones solos again on "Evidence" showing how though improvised, his solos can be seen as complete arrangements after he plays them. He uses contrasts in volume and tempo in sections to great effect. On Monk's response to modal playing titled "Oska T.," Jones demonstrates the power of playing this way at a simmering tempo rather than a boil. Essentially a vamp in A-flat concert, Jones serves up a clinic on brass technique with a no-pressure delivery. The environment enables Jones to sift through his style to his center where he has a song that he sings that is the underlying foundation of all of his work, his core lyricism being revealed. On "Four In One," after a one- minute arrangement of the theme, Jones again takes the lead solo. He plays in a way where his tone leads the notes, even while playing fast. Here he utilizes the difficult melodic material. Jones constructs lines that are clear, concise, and precise while using chord extensions very effectively. Jones is revealed to be the most successful brass player to work with Monk by swinging and using the melody while improvising creative new ideas in his voice. You can hear the chord changes, but he is never restrained by them. In 1965 Jones formed a very successful big band with drummer Mel Lewis. In 1978 Jones moved to Denmark and led a big band called Eclipse from 1979-1984. He returned to the United States to lead the Basie orchestra in 1985, but ill health had him return to Copenhagen where he died from Cancer in 1986 at 63 years old. Two records that Jones played on as a sideman to incredible effect are The Hawk Swings with Coleman Hawkins and Ca'Purange with Dexter Gordon.

Before the Monk big band date with Thad Jones, Monk recorded a live record in 1960 and hired trumpeter Joe Gordon for the record titled Thelonious Monk at the Blackhawk on Riverside. Harold Land also joined the group, now with two tenors including Charlie Rouse. Here we have a chance to hear a trumpet player live in a small band format with Monk who included a standard and his own classic "'Round Midnight." Joe Gordon was a talented bop player with a touch of swing thrown in. He played in the Dizzy Gillespie big band and had the opening solo on a "Night In Tunisia" before Lee Morgan. He also worked for Horace Silver. Gordon recorded an album as a leader at twenty-six years old in 1954 for the EmArcy label. Charlie Rouse was on tenor which most likely led to the Monk collaboration as Gordon was living in Los Angeles when Monk traveled out to the west coast to San Francisco. Playing with Monk, Gordon maintained his almost complete reliance and focus on straight ahead bop. He possessed excellent ears and musicality and achieved real interaction with Monk on "San Francisco Holiday," also known as "Worry Later." On "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You," Gordon maintains his bop prime bop directive with a solo containing no tension and no change in dynamics, a common trait in his music overall. On Monk's "Evidence," he plays a solo section where Monk leaves him alone in a trio format battling talking customers. His clear ideas swing, again with no tension as if he were seeking a form of perfection. The question remains, did Gordon not hear tension? On "'Round Midnight," Gordon plays bop at a slower tempo, with his tone more exposed and revealed. In 1961, Gordon had one more record as a leader titled Lookin' Good for Contemporary. He appeared on thirty-five records between 1951-61 and also lived to thirty-five. He died in a fire in 1963. His music was like a pure extraction and amalgam of the bop style used by Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Red Rodney, and Miles Davis while being slightly less organic.

The last trumpet player to be hired by Thelonious Monk was Lonnie Hillyer for a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1976, but unfortunately, there was no recording made. Hillyer (1940-1985) was another bop trumpeter who liked to take his time and also throw in some slightly restrained blues. He spent most of his recording career with Charles Mingus and had no dates as a leader. On a record Mingus titled My Favorite Quintet, Hillyer has a lengthy solo on a piece titled "So Long Eric" where he begins playing entirely solo introspective solemn blues before the rhythm section erupts into different tempos. Somehow, Hillyer refuses to engage them and continues as if he were observing rather than participating in a musical paradox of sorts, as if he were in another space and time. The level of caution in which he approached Monk is unknown, but regardless, his musical honesty deserves respect. At thirty-three he retired from active playing and was a teacher for the final decade of his life, falling to Cancer in 1985 at forty-five years old.
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