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Monk's Trumpets

Matt Lavelle By

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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.

Throughout my study on Monk's trumpets, I'm not trying to disregard Clark Terry's album with Monk as a sideman In Orbit, that is often credited to Monk as the leader. Dizzy Gillespie, the unofficial leader of George Wein's Giants Of Jazz tour that included Monk had a long and personal history with Monk that deserves further study. Miles Davis's relationship with Monk deserves further research. Benny Harris crossed paths with Monk while recording with Coleman Hawkins. Trumpeter Vic Coulson replaced Benny with Hawkins and was a favorite of Monk's who went on record crediting Coulson with new directions in music and saying he found his phrasing more interesting than Dizzy. Descriptions of Coulson's style are low-key, understated, impeccable, and even neat. Charlie Parker was quoted as saying Coulson played things he never heard before, citing him as an inspiration to pursue his music. In 1945 it was believed that Coulson was overcome by alcoholism and he faded into legend. Finally, Nick Travis (1925-1964) was a sideman on Monk's 1963 big band recording on Columbia, but he took no solos. Travis was primarily a big band and studio musician, though he appears on a TV Show called Jazz Party in a staged battle with the great cornetist Rex Stewart playing "There Will Never Be Another You." Travis plays a down-the-middle no-risk Dizzy influenced style while Stewart was borderline playing free improvisation. Both of them are very much into their cigarettes. Travis suddenly died from a problem with ulcers at the age of only 38 years old.

What I believe it revealed in this examination is that Monk had a unique understanding of the trumpet, in some ways more than the players themselves. As revealed recently by his son T.S Monk, the trumpet was his father's as well as his own first instrument! At the core, a common challenge that all trumpet players face is how the technical difficulties of the instrument work in the context of playing chord changes. The harmonic world of Thelonious Monk deepens this challenge. The trumpet is known as the melody instrument, but in Monk's world, many musicians let the chord structure lead the way, often not realizing that Monk's harmonic movement is melodic as well. Monk's melodies are often so personal and pianistic that one wonders how they can be translated, or spoken on trumpet. Thad Jones emerges as the trumpet player who went deeper than all others. Still, no trumpet player reached Charlie Rouse's status as the lone horn on extensive recordings and live performances. The tenor just seems to naturally sound correct in Monk's music with its particular range and sound. Of course, it's more than the instrument; it was Charlie Rouse himself who made it work, partially because while he was present, the musical spotlight was still on Monk himself. John Coltrane and Johnny Griffin had a way of pulling the ear in their direction. Here in 2017, in my own Harmelodic Monk project, I'm seeking a new perspective on Monk's music based entirely on melody. I believe Monk's music to contain secrets to the inner workings of jazz that scholarship cannot teach, secrets that can only be reached by playing. I imagine Monk's music will guide musicians to their philosophical centers for many years to come. As Monk himself said, he liked all instruments as long as they were played right.
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