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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.

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