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Who Needs Monk?

Patrick Burnette By

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In practical terms, songs based on familiar progressions give musicians an entry-point to unfamiliar music. In creative terms, it's surprising how often working within a set of constraints inspires artistic achievement. Monk didn't shy away from writing thorny, challenging, nearly unplayable tunes from time to time, and there's no reason modern musicians should either. But it can't hurt to have a contrafact or two in your portfolio. Writing one might unlock some unexpected inspiration.

Lesson Four: The greatest jazz composers also played other people's music.

The all-originals album is an increasingly common occurrence in jazz, but it was an anomaly back in the day. It was the rare Monk recording that didn't include at least one cover. One might look at this as a necessary commercial concession—a record company or manager asking him to include something familiar to soothe his challenged audience. Whatever the motive, Monk's covers give the listener insight into his identity. He does not play the usual suspect Great American Songbook tunes—he plays songs that you can tell have a personal meaning for him just by opening your ears. "Just a Gigolo." "There's Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie." "I Surrender, Dear." And don't forget the hymns—"Abide with Me," and the recently reissued "By and By."

No artist creates in a vacuum. Each is nurtured in a particular cultural context. Each is introduced to the beauty of music in a different way. The first or second tune that gets stuck in your head and fascinates you might not, from a mature prospective, be a profound piece of music. That doesn't make it less part of you.

It is surprising how many contemporary jazz artists give the impression of being raised in a cultural bubble, as if their first musical experience was taking advanced composition at Berkley rather than grooving to a song on Youtube, Spotify, the radio, a parent or friend's record collection... Cover songs are a way of reaching an audience, but if chosen carefully they can also reveal something profound about an artist. Monk's Music is arguably Thelonious' single greatest album and most profound statement of who he is as an artist. It begins with a hymn.

So there you have it—four aspects of Monk's career as a player/composer that might offer lessons for today's young musicians. Maybe they won't all apply—or appeal to you. If so, it may still be worth your while to think of one.


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