Thelonious Sphere Monk was born on October 10 in Rocky Mount, NC
NEW YORK CITY
Monk and his family moved to Manhattan in New York City
At the age of six, Monk taught himself to play the piano
Monk joined the house band at Harlem’s jazz venue, Minton’s Playhouse
Monk recorded in the studio with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet
Monk composed his own music for the first time for Riverside Records. The album, Brilliant Corners, was a commercial success
TIME MAGAZINE COVER
Monk was featured on the cover of TIME on February 25
Monk’s last tour was the Giants of Jazz. Monk had disappeared from the jazz scene by the mid-1970s
Monk suffered a stroke and passed away on February 17. He was 64
Monk received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his influence on jazz
A Mellifluous Name by Any Other . . .
Thelonious Monk, Self-Taught Musician
Thelonious Sphere* Monk was born in Rocky Mount NC on 10 October 1917, and his family moved to Manhattan NY. When he was six, Monk started playing the piano – completely self-taught – he didn’t even complete Stuyvesant High School. His early performances were on the church organ as part of an evangelical tour. By the time the early 1940s were in full swing, Monk was playing jazz piano in a Manhattan nightclub – Minton’s Playhouse.
What’s so Cool About Thelonious?
After-hour sessions with other jazz musicians advanced the formation of bebop – a type of jazz featuring a mixture of fast tempo, key changes, improvisation, and complex chord progressions. During this time in jazz, no one’s music was sacrosanct; in other words, if another musician liked your music, he might “borrow” some without giving credit. One of the reasons for Monk’s musical complexity was to make it difficult for anyone to copy. His biographer, Robin D.G. Kelley, wrote, “Monk’s radical idea was not to add more notes to chords but rather take them away, creating much more dissonance. He’d often play two-note chords—for instance taking the third and the fifth out of a major seventh chord and playing just the root and major seventh—and wham, there’s Monk’s sound. It’s the right chord, yet he makes it sound like a completely bizarre choice.”
Monk’s Behavior and Health Myths
Monk had several run-ins with the law during which he was suspected of drug use; it wasn’t necessarily him, but he refused to name names of those who might be guilty. Ultimately he lost his New York City Cabaret Card – this meant he couldn’t play in any New York venue where alcohol was served – imagine how that cut into his career. He was able to resume playing and had a number of recording contracts between 1955 and 1970, but by the mid 1970s had pretty much left the music scene. There were rumors of mental illness; his son said “that his father sometimes did not recognize him, and he reports that Monk was hospitalized on several occasions owing to an unspecified mental illness that worsened in the late 1960s.”
In The Atlantic interview with his biographer Kelley, who had logged 14 years of working with the Monk family, was able to clear up a number of details regarding Monk’s mental health. Kelley’s goal for the book was precise: “Descriptions of his music become conflated with descriptions of his behavior, onstage and off. I wanted to disentangle those things, understand who Thelonious Monk was as a human being, and who he was as an artist.” Kelley found that Monk suffered from prescription drug abuse mostly due to poorly diagnosed mental issues – perhaps bipolar disorder.
Monk’s Final Years and Beyond
Although Monk died in 1982, his fame has continued to grow. He was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993; and in 2006 Monk received a special Pulitzer Prize for his influence on jazz. In 1986, Monk’s family and Maria Fischer (a film actress and jazz aficionado) established The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz** (now associated with the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music).
Did You Know?
- During performances, decked in his signature hat and sunglasses, Monk would stop playing, stand up, and dance around the stage before returning to his music.
- Monk was one of only five jazz musicians to be on the cover of Time. The others were Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, and Wynton Marsalis.
- While second only in number of jazz recordings after Duke Ellington, Monk recorded only 70 pieces, while Ellington more than 1,000.
- Thelonious Monk didn’t play much in his final years; he lived in the New Jersey home of his patron, Baroness de Koenigswarter. She was a patron of jazz – particularly bebop music.
* There are “copies” of his birth certificate on the internet that show his middle name as “Junior”. But common wisdom has his middle name, Sphere, taken from his maternal grandfather.
** This college level program accepts seven students to a tuition-free two-year program that encourages performance, individual composition, and expanding jazz as a music form.
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