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Thelonious Monk: Pianists Riff on Monk

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This month, over a dozen pianists will participate in a free concert, Thelonious Monk at 92, at the World Financial Center in lower Manhattan. Seven of them, and two other pianists with an abiding interest in Monk, answered questions about Monk's music and more specifically, his piano playing, as influence and inspiration.

Jazz pianists may disagree about whether or not Thelonious Monk was the "high priest" of bebop who, in Geri Allen's words, "set the tone for the most revolutionary period in jazz—bebop" or if he, as Randy Weston says, "could never be called bebop" since he is a timeless artist who, according to Clarice Assad, "does not feel attached to any particular era, so always sounds fresh." But almost everyone agrees that Monk was unique, a pianist and composer like no other, who had his own sound and was, says Allen, "a pure innovator whose innovations were deeply rooted in his culture."

That culture, for Weston, traces back thousands of years to Africa. "I used to play with Ahmed Abdul-Malik, a bassist of North African heritage [who also can be heard on the Monk Quartet With John Coltrane—At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note) CD] who also played the oud and qanun and could play all those in-between notes that I couldn't find on the piano. But Monk found them, found that sound and through him I found it. The only other one I can think of with that sound heritage is Duke Ellington. It reminds me of ancient Africa, the universal scale before the Western scale, that something magical that Duke and Monk put into the piano."

"Monk definitely comes out of that school of Ellington," says Jason Moran, who earlier this year commemorated the 50th anniversary of Monk's orchestra concert at Town Hall with a tribute that included multimedia aspects including films and recordings of the original rehearsals and concert. "He had an attack like Duke, the rhythmic approach to the piano as opposed, to simplify, to the melodic approach. He's from the more percussive side of a line that still stretches today. It does set people apart who approach the piano in that percussive way. The challenge is to make it sound good although not as many pianists do it. There's a distinct difference between the approach to the piano of Duke Ellington and Keith Jarrett and [the Duke's approach] is not a popular root."

"Anyone who plays the piano and really listens to Monk has to appreciate what he could do with the instrument," says Jim McNeely, pianist and resident composer with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. "I have this image of Monk walking through the woods and finding this instrument and saying to himself: what could you do with this? He just played it his own way, forged his own language both harmonically and technically. Other guys adhered to a more standard piano technique and Teddy [Wilson] and Art [Tatum] could not have done the things they did if they played like Monk, but his technique served him well, that whole percussive attack and certain different voicings he had. The way I see it he never asked permission, just said this is what I'm hearing and did it with such conviction. He stuck with his own vision with absolute conviction throughout his career, knowing that it was right, even in the face of prevailing criticism."

That conviction is also an inspiration to Moran: "Direction is key and Monk had a very solid direction. He made a very conscious choice about how he is going to play his music and how his audience is going to receive it. If you didn't hear it 15 years ago, OK, he'll play it again; he's committed to his own sound. What was hip about Monk and his generation was that they were making strong decisions and really committing early on to them. That committal level is not the same today. Monk represents something for every musician today; whether they are straight-ahead or free, everybody has to deal with Monk."

"Monk's spirit says to me: Nothing is sacrosanct," states Armen Donelian. "Everything may and must be deeply questioned in search of a personal aesthetic. I may not arrive at the same musical solution as Monk did—hopefully, I won't—yet my search is inspired by Monk's relentless drive to deconstruct the expected and rebuild something strange and marvelous in its place." Harold O'Neal adds, "When I first heard Monk I immediately noticed I had heard no one like him before. And you can hear the presence of his influence in the pianists that came after him."

"Monk had a personal way of composing and playing," comments Emilio Solla, that created his "own special musical world and spirit...with a strong personal signature."

So what was that personal signature and aesthetic of Monk's? What did it consist of and how did it develop?

Weston sees not only African roots but also gospel and earlier jazz in Monk's style. "Monk's earthy way of playing came from his training in gospel, that black church feeling. [As a teen, Monk toured with an evangelist for two years]. I felt that same church spirit in him and Art Blakey; when they played no matter what they did you got that root feeling. And of course he loved James P. [Johnson] and those early stride cats and, like Duke, what he could do with the blues is just marvelous. I always hear that feeling of the blues—to me it's the sound of the life of African-Americans—in Duke and Monk."

Donelian speaks in more strictly musical terms in describing it: "The attractions are found in Monk's music itself—the melodies, harmonies, chord voicings, dissonances, rhythms and forms. His compositions—and particularly his way of playing them—are a running commentary on the language of the blues and the standards of his era. His melodic innuendoes, chord progressions that deny rightful resolutions and rhythmic oddities, are just plain pure fun for me during both thematic exposition and improvisational development."

Allen uses more rhetorical flourishes: "Monk's innovations served as the portal through which modern jazz was transported. His fierce artistic integrity, unassailable nature, clarity of creative vision and unaffected sense of mystical theater and style all set the tone...for bebop."

"I've often felt," says Assad of seeing Monk, "that I was not watching a musician perform, but rather a sculptor working on every nuance of the sound as if it was made of physical matter." And Weston observes: "People would laugh at what he did, but it was almost like a ballet watching his hands and feet. And he would get up and he'd dance so his music always had that It don't mean a thing if—you know what I mean."

At the Five Spot on Bowery in the late '50s, where this writer saw Monk quite a few times, he often got up and danced in the crook of the piano or elsewhere on the miniscule stage while the tenor saxophonist (Johnny Griffin, Coltrane, Rollins or Charlie Rouse) soloed with the rhythm section. The dance was an equilibrium-defying soft-shoe (with tap-like moves) where it seemed Monk was always on the verge of losing his balance and crashing—but never did. The odd hesitations, asymmetrical pirouettes and short almost-falls were like visual echoes of the strange spaces and progressions in his music. For Weston and Moran, Monk's dancing was a key to his music. Moran says he even incorporated that element into the sound of his band exiting the stage after "Little Rootie Tootie" at the Town Hall concert.

Gerald Clayton, another young pianist, points out other important components, including humor, in Monk's music and playing: "Monk's music tends to surprise me when I'm playing it. There's always a humorous line here or an unexpected turn there. And Monk's playing demonstrates the importance of melody. You can always hear the original theme while listening to him solo. I try to keep that in mind and always strive to be melodic. He also had a way of manipulating simplicity. His tunes are not easy by any means, but he found a way of combining simple musical elements to create unique compositions."

"Monk's music is still news decades after his death," says Donelian. "Its freshness and vitality speak to old and young, the experienced and the neophyte, layman and professional. Another, sometimes unmentioned, factor is the accessible sense of organization inherent in his music. Somehow, Monk manages to disguise traditional frameworks with unusual structural and ornamental devices, preventing boredom from setting in while still giving new listeners some handles to grab on to."

"I've never grown tired of Monk's music," says McNeely. "Sometimes I'll have a student over and play a Monk piece I thought I knew and hear things in there I never heard before."

So, over a quarter century since Monk died and even longer since he ceased public performances, his music lives on stronger than ever and his popularity continues to grow. As Clayton remarks: "Monk had such a strong vibe and definitive approach, anyone can listen to his music and understand it on some level."

Recommended Listening:

Thelonious Monk, Genius of Modern Music Vol. 1 & 2 (Blue Note, 1947/1951-52)

Thelonious Monk, The Complete Riverside Recordings (Riverside, 1955-61)

Thelonious Monk, With John Coltrane—At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note, 1957)

Thelonious Monk, Monk's Dream (Columbia, 1962)

Thelonious Monk, Straight, No Chaser (Columbia, 1966-67)

Thelonious Monk, The Complete London Collection (Black Lion-Mosaic, 1971)

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