Though a top tenor man in his own right, he will always be remembered as the saxophonist for the Thelonious Monk quartet. He adapted his playing to Monk’s music; his tone became heavier, his phrasing more careful, and he seemed to be the medium between Monk and the audience.
Charlie Rouse studied clarinet before taking up tenor saxophone. He played in the bop big bands of Billy Eckstine (1944) and Dizzy Gillespie (1945), but made his first recordings as a soloist only in 1947, with Tadd Dameron and Fats Navarro.
After playing rhythm-and-blues in Washington and New York, he was a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra (1949-50) and Count Basie's octet (1950). He took part in Clifford Brown's first recordings in 1953, then worked with Bennie Green (1955) and played in Oscar Pettiford's sextet (1955); with Julius Watkins, also one of Pettiford's sidemen, he led Les Modes (later the Jazz Modes), a bop quintet (1956-59). He joined Buddy Rich briefly before playing in Thelonious Monk's quartet (1959-1970), the association for which he is best known.
In the 1960s Rouse adapted his style to Monk's work, improvising with greater deliberation than most bop tenor saxophonists, and restating melodies often. His distinctive solo playing with Monk may be heard on the classic recordings in the bands heyday.
Though he would go on to do some solo projects, they were very selective and he opted for quality over quantity. His first outing as leader was “Taking Care of Business,” (1960) for this overdue debut, he selected trumpeter Blue Mitchell, and a rhythm section of pianist Walter Bishop and bassist Earl May, and Art Taylor on drums.
During the 1970s he worked as a freelance, and recorded three albums as a leader. The album "Two is One" was recorded in 1974 for Strata East. Charlie in 1977 did “Moments Notice,” and enlisted the help of some top crack Brazilian locals for “Cinnamon Flower.” Dom Salvador, Amaury Tristao, Dom Um Romao, Portinho and Claudio Roditi were hooked up with some of NYCs finest-Ron Carter,Bernard Purdie and Clifford Adams. This was a highlight album for Rouse in that period, very well received.
In the early 1980s he was a member and joint leader of the quartet Sphere, which was dedicated to the performance of Monk's music. He recorded other albums as “Social Call,” (’84) where he joined up with Red Rodney. His offering of “Epistrophy,” (1988) was his tribute to Monk.