Thelonious Monk Inside Out: A Fresh Perspective On His Music

Victor L. Schermer By

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Over the years, Thelonious Monk has resided in our collective minds and hearts like the extra-terrestrial "E.T." or Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, or some such alien figure whom we don't fully understand yet love and enjoy. His music shocks and disturbs us, yet we take great pleasure in it like a jolting ride at an amusement park. Monk's eccentric way of playing disrupts our equilibrium, yet it attracts us by its charm and wit. Musicians immerse themselves in his compositions and recordings, but because of his idiosyncratic way of attacking the piano, few emulate Monk in the same way that saxophonists are influenced by John Coltrane or pianists assimilate Oscar Peterson. Yet Monk can claim a place alongside them in the jazz pantheon.

Monk is generally agreed to have had a profound impact on jazz, but few youngsters are going to say, "Hey, I really want to play like him!" And there is no Monk movement taking up where he left off. Periodically, however, there are concerts and recordings honoring Monk, such as the recent tour by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Chick Corea; or CDs by Fred Hersch (Thelonious: Fred Hersch Plays Monk, Nonesuch, 1998), Danilo Pérez (Panamonk, Grp, 1996), and Monk's son, T.S. Monk (Monk on Monk (N2K, 1997). There are groups dedicated to his music such as Monkadelphia (Monkadelphia, Dreambox Media, 2000). They all play Monk tunes, do novel arrangements, and incorporate some of his phrasings and idiomatic way of playing, but astute listeners often wonder, is that really Monk, or just a way of riffing on him, as if to say, "Hey, I really dig him!"

All that being said, there is no reason to carbon copy a legend's music in order to honor him; in fact quite the opposite is true. The best way to honor a great musician is to show in your playing how much you've grown beyond him through his inspiration, as, for example, Dexter Gordon did with Lester Young. If only by osmosis, Monk has influenced many pianists, composers, horn players, and rhythm sections.

However, if you're going to deliberately perform Monk-style, it's a different story. He possessed such a brilliant and unique musical mind and technique, that unless the musician displays a certain intelligence about Monk's pianistic, rhythmic and harmonic idioms, playing his tunes and attempting to use his tactics, no matter how awe-inspiring in other ways, may be disappointing. The listeners' comparison with Monk is inevitable, and just like Monk's contemporaries, some current musicians "get it" and some don't.

To help the musicians along with this task, critics and scholars have formed a cottage industry of sorting out who Monk "really was" and what he was trying to do in his music. A recent work of impeccable scholarship that formed a capstone on all these efforts was Robin Kelley's epic biography, Thelonious Monk: An American Original (New York: Free Press, 2009.) Kelley meticulously documented Monk's music, its sources, and how it relates to his life, but, with all the facts and analysis, something about the Monk musical experience evades understanding. Nevertheless, although the essence will always remain "misterioso," we can try to define its major features with the hope of enlarging and enhancing that experience.

A "Secret" to Monk's Music

I myself have puzzled endlessly over the question of what defines Monk, looking for words to describe his unique approach. Finally, one evening recently, while listening to some of Monk's recordings, I got an idea of what that evasive something might be. I don't pretend by a long shot to have figured out Monk once and for all, but I think what I experienced might provide a useful handle for listening to Monk in a fresh way that sheds additional light on what he was about.

Inspired by a musical analysis of a Monk solo by Evan Ziporyn and Michael Tenzer ("Thelonious Monk's Harmony, Rhythm, and Pianism," in Tenzer and Roeder, editors, Analytic and Cross-Cultural Studies in World Music, Oxford, 2009), I was listening to Monk's solo recording of "I Should Care" (Thelonious Himself, Riverside, 1957). Monk plays this otherwise simply stated ballad in a rubato and sometimes jagged manner, taking great liberty with the tempo and harmony, dissecting and re-framing the tune for his own purposes, while at the same time he remains strictly within the 32-bar format of the tune. I found myself listening to it in a dreamy, wandering mental state, as if from a distance, like overhearing it in another room. In that detached state of mind, I had a repeated experience of first thinking, "That's strange and far out," immediately followed by the realization, "Hey, it fits so perfectly." Reflecting on it later, I realized that such an alternation of being outside and inside, deviation from and consistent with the expectable norm captures something of what Monk is all about. Let me try to explain this idea further.

Figure-Ground Reversal

In gestalt psychology, there is a phenomenon called "figure-ground reversal." Most objects we see in the environment are unequivocal. To quote Gertrude Stein, "A rose is a rose is a rose." But when a sensory pattern embodies more than one possibility, it may appear one way, and then another. It is illustrated by Rubin's_Vase, an image that alternately appears as a vase versus two faces looking at each other.

Our perception of Rubin's vase never resolves to one or the other, but oscillates between the two. The point made by the gestalt psychologists is that the figure (the object we see) and the ground (its surroundings and context) depends on how the brain interprets and organizes a particular sensory input into patterns. What is perceived can fluctuate. Similarly, in a work of art or music, two or even more patterns may demand equal time, as in Escher's famous print where birds_and_fish alternate in our perceptions of the same shape or form

In music, profound examples of figure-ground reversals occur frequently in J.S. Bach's counterpoint, in which a note or motif may appear as part of one contrapuntal line or another, and the listener can hear it both ways. Alternating perspectives make Bach's music endlessly fascinating and give it special meaning beyond the notes themselves. Bach's The Art of the Fugue is full of examples of this kind. The notes and their shifting contexts are in constant interplay. Of course, composers other than Bach, as well as many jazz musicians, also have made use of this confluence of melodic streams to create a kind of "third stream" that results from the interactions of the contrapuntal "tributaries."

For Monk, there is a particular figure-ground reversal that I would argue is crucial to all his playing and composing. Part of the magic of Monk's music, and what gives it great appeal despite its superficial "craziness" (i.e., clashing with the traditional, programmatic, and expected) is that the ear hears what he's doing from two alternating perspectives that are equally valid: "in" and "out." "In" means that it is compatible with the mainstream vocabulary of swing/bop that is familiar to us. "Out" means that it appears dissonant, exotic, and unfamiliar with respect to that same musical language. Monk alternates "in" and "out" in a figure-ground musical equivalent of a Socratic dialogue. Like Socrates, he makes a space to "think" when he improvises, and by the same method used by the great philosopher, he offers an alternative solution to the problem. The album Monk's Dream (Columbia, 1963), coming at the height of Monk's ascendance, has many examples of rhythmic flow disrupted by "spaces" where a musical "Q&A" is introduced.

Monk wouldn't have been so listenable if he had been as systematic as Socrates, or for that matter, as Lennie Tristano (Monk's contemporary, an innovative pianist in his own right) who sought a set of formulas from which improvisations could be built. Formulas were of little interest to the adventurous Monk. Like Alice in Wonderland, Monk dove into the rabbit hole of musical experience. So his playing is full of surprises and unusual juxtapositions. But he did seem to have a "looking glass" that served as both a telescope and, used in reverse, a wider view of music from a space beyond it, so that what others might hear as oddities to be avoided fit perfectly within his greater musical perspective. The critic Paul Bacon put it this way: "He hasn't invented a new scheme of things, but he has ... looked with an unjaundiced eye at music and seen a little something else... Monk is making use of all the unused space around jazz and he makes you feel there are plenty of unopened doors." (italics mine/VLS) (Rob van der Bliek, editor, The Thelonious Monk Reader, Oxford, 2001, p. 216.)

In a way, this is what all pioneering jazz musicians do. They discover original possibilities within the existing music and conceive a new variation, approach, or style. But few achieved an originality to compare with Monk. (I'll have more to say later about the difference between Monk and the avant-garde, who were even more "out" than Monk.) Many of Monk's improvisations initially appear outrageous, almost like a child randomly hitting the keys, and then you take a breath and it fits perfectly. You always get the dual perspective of "out" and "in," a jolt out of the blue, and then a sense that it is contained within the traditional modalities, like a kind of "check mate." He might put in an F# when you expect a G, or a halting rhythm when you think it should swing, or a chord from another key that doesn't seem to belong there. But then he "check mates" you because the music has its own inner logic that you didn't hear before, just as a chess player doesn't see the reason for his opponent's move until he's "mated."

The "in-out" figure-ground reversal occurs frequently in Monk. Moreover, he is perfectly comfortable going "out" in his own way while his co-musicians play within a standard bop/swing format. In a host of albums with saxophonists like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Rouse, Gerry Mulligan, and Johnny Griffin, these legends move forward in their usual manner. When Monk comes in, he might use an unexpected tone cluster or dissonance, throw in some "nutty" rhythms, or hit the keys with his forearm. But it fits well, even enhances the quality of the hard bop lines. He goes "outside," but, unlike the avant-garde as such, he remains "inside." He vastly expands what we can hear as "inside."
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