A Twist Of Doc: An Appreciation of Thelonious Monk On His 95th Birthday

By Devon “Doc” Wendell

Today Thelonious Sphere Monk would’ve turned 95 years old, and it’s hard to imagine a life without Monk’s music. The man who was named “The high priest of be-bop” taught me what it really means to swing musically. But although he’s credited as being one of the founders of be-bop, Monk’s music is a separate entity onto itself. There’s jazz, all other music, and then there’s the way Monk played and composed.

The first time I ever heard Monk was on a birthday anniversary marathon radio broadcast of his music on WKCR out of Columbia University in New York City, late at night. I was about 11 or 12. I recorded some of the music on my small cassette recorder.

My first impression was that the music sounded as if it were from another planet.

Thelonious Monk

Most of what I recorded that evening were some of Monk’s classic recordings for Blue Note records between 1947-1952, such as “Blue Monk,” “Well You Needn’t,” “Criss-Cross,” “Straight, No Chaser,” “In Walked Bud,” “Misterioso,” and “‘Round Midnight.”

As much as I was entertained by Monk’s sound, I really didn’t get it until a few years later when I was in high school.

During my freshman year of high school in Brooklyn, every Friday my friends and I would cut class, go get stoned at the local park, and steal cassettes from a tiny, local record store that we so brilliantly called “The Tape Shack.” This was the early ’90s and it was hard to find jazz and blues albums on CD. The ones I was interested in hadn’t been reissued on CD yet, and if you found one of the original LPs in good condition, it would cost you a pretty penny. The “Tape Shack” had a great selection of music issued on tape. One of my favorites was a Monk album titled Brilliant Corners (Riverside). The cover had a bizarre photograph of Monk smiling from 5 different angles as if his image were reflected from a fun house mirror. Below that image it read “With Sonny Rollins, Ernie Henry, and Clark Terry.” I was immediately blown away by the lineup which also included Oscar Pettiford, Max Roach, and Paul Chambers.

At the time, I was growing bored of the albums I was listening to over and over (mostly old blues, funk, and some jazz) and desperately needed a new sound, and I got it. My friend let me keep the tape and I took it home that night and re-discovered Monk. This time I got it.

I had already been exposed to Bird, Dizzy, Duke, Rollins, and some Miles, but everything about this recording felt different, although there was some connection to those other artists. His piano playing didn’t have that fluidity that I had heard in Bud Powell, Art Tatum, or Herbie Hancock. Monk played with a syncopation and percussiveness that I hadn’t heard in anyone else’s music. Now I loved that difference. Before, I didn’t appreciate that his playing and compositions were filled with humor, harmonic complexities, an economical approach to phrasing, huge spaces, and witty melodic themes. There was also a deeper understanding of the blues and gospel than most of the jazz I had been exposed to up to that point.

Thelonious Monk

In that earliest encounter, I often felt as if Monk would just slam together some odd chords that made no sense. This time, I realized that every note, chord, and nuance was completely intentional, purposeful, and perfect, and that was what made Monk like no other musician. Every note and every silence was deliberate; the space Monk would create would put a greater emphasis on what he would play. I finally felt the true swing of jazz that I thought I had known in the past. From then on, all music swung harder. I heard Bird, Miles, Coltrane, Rollins, and Blakey, in a new light. Monk had inspired and played with all of these artists and so many more. I was able to hear that divine syncopation in each chord, note, and phrase, in all of these other musicians, especially Miles, who built his whole career around Monk’s concepts of space and time.

After hearing that recording, I went out and found every Monk album I could, which wasn’t easy then. From his early Blue Note sides, to his bands with John Coltrane, Wilbur Ware, Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins on Riverside, as well as his longest standing band on Columbia records from ’63 – ’68, with Charles Rouse on tenor sax, Larry Gales on bass, and Ben Riley on drums.

Being an obsessed musician myself, Monk still teaches me volumes. It doesn’t matter that I play guitar, bass, and harmonica, I now understand true syncopation in a thought out manner, with space, and fun, that gives me a curve above the countless many of musicians today who play a million notes all cluttered together at the same volume.

Monk even helped me gain a greater understanding of the blues, especially in players such as B.B. King, Albert King, and T-Bone Walker, in whom less was more as well as allowing silences to say more than a dozen notes could ever do. This became key for me in any musical context.

What I love most about Monk’s music is that although technically it’s very complex (as stated by so many of the greats who played with him, primarily the reedsmen), it’s so accessible melodically that you can hum or whistle his tunes in the shower just as you can with The Beatles. They stay with you forever.

An example of this approach was captured in a scene between Monk and famed producer Teo Macero in Charlotte Zwerin’s 1988 documentary on Monk; “Straight, No Chaser” (produced by Clint Eastwood).

It was 1967 and Monk and Macero were about to begin the recording sessions for the classic Underground album. Macero sat down at the piano, doodling a few notes and said to Monk; “So how about doing some free-form stuff?”

Monk replied “Nah, I want it to be as simple as possible so the people can dig it.” That’s all Monk needed to say. He then lapsed back into one of his long silences.

He spoke the way he played, saying very little but when he did, it was strong and straight to the point.

Monk was and will always be hipper, smarter, and harder swinging than anyone on this planet. Happy birthday Monk, thanks for giving us that endless swing found in all things.

* * * * * *          * * * * * *          * * * * * *

The following is a list of five essential Monk recordings.

1) Brilliant Corners (1956 Riverside) Monk, Ernie Herny, Sonny Rollins, Oscar Pettiford, Max Roach, Clark Terry, and Paul Chambers gather to play on Monk originals such as; “Brilliant Corners”, “Ba-Lue Ba-Lues Are, “Bemsha Swing”, and “Panonica”.

This is perfect example of Monk’s mid-50s compositions performed by an all-star band.

2) Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane At Carnegie Hall (2005 Blue Note Records) This album was lost for decades in The U.S. Library Of Congress and finally found in 2004. This is the closest most of us will ever get to hearing Monk’s legendary Five Spot band (John Coltrane: tenor sax, Shadow Wilson: drums, and Ahmed Abdul Malik on bass) with the exception of Malik on bass, replacing Wilbur Ware of the original Five Spot band. The sound is as perfect as the performances on this Holy Grail of live jazz recordings.

3) The Best Of Thelonious Monk: The Blue Note Years (1991 Blue Note Records)

Although I don’t usually recommend best of compilations because they often seem artistically glib and touristy, this is a wonderful collection of Monk’s original be-bop classics on Blue Note, from 1947-1952. “’Round Midnight,” “Blue Monk,” “Skippy,” “Ruby My Dear,” “Straight, No Chaser” and many other now be-bop standards are featured here with amazing accompaniment by Max Roach, Art Blakey, Milt Jackson, Kenny Dorham, and Lou Donaldson.

4) Monk’s Music (1957 Riverside) Although Monk continued to re-record many of his classic Blue Note pieces over the years (as is the case here), they would always sound different depending on the band. Here Monk is joined by John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Gigi Gryce, Ray Copeland, Wilbur Ware, and Art Blakey. The lineup alone makes this and essential purchase for any music lover.

5) Underground (1967 Columbia Records) This is Monk’s second to last album for Columbia (and of his career) with his most recorded band; Charles Rouse: tenor sax, Larry Gales: bass, and Ben Riley on drums. Monk presents some brand new brilliant compositions such as “Ugly Beauty,” “Raise Four,” “Boo Boo’s Birthday” and “Green Chimneys.” Monk sounds as if he’s in his prime and by this point the band had an almost telepathic connection. This is Monk’s strongest recording for Columbia.

* * * * * *          * * * * * *          * * * * * *

Finally, here’s a video example of the master at work, displaying his ability to cover someone else’s material, change the voicing and harmonies, and make it his own.

Just A Gigolo” ( I. Caeser, L. Cassuci)

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.

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