As influential as he proved to be during the final decades of his lifetime, it appears that Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917-82) has only gained greater stature in the years since his death. Once considered too eccentric and complex to be appreciated by listeners and other musicians, Monk has become a standard of excellence, as both composer and soloist, for those who seek to extend the jazz tradition.
While born in North Carolina, Monk moved to the Hell's Kitchen area of Manhattan at age four, making him in effect a native New Yorker. He heard and absorbed the music of Duke Ellington and such masters of the stride piano style as James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith; and he toured as a teenager with an evangelist, sounding according to his future champion Mary Lou Williams like Teddy Wilson at the time. By 1936 he was back in New York, where he spent the next several years playing a variety of jobs. The most important was his tenure as house pianist at Minton's, the legendary Harlem club where drummer Kenny Clarke was also in the band and young musicians like Charlie Christian and Dizzy Gillespie liked to show up for after-hours jamming. The exchange of ideas that took place in these sessions led to the style later known as bebop. Monk was a central contributor to this process, and also the champion of the pianist who would become emblematic of the style, Bud Powell.
Monk's ideas regarding tonality, accent, dissonance, and space were not typically boppish, however; and, except for a 1944 session with Coleman Hawkins where he made his debut, he was not recorded as quickly as the other modernists. As a composer, however, Monk made his presence felt with works like "'Round Midnight," "Epistrophy," and "Off Minor," all of which were recorded before Monk obtained his first session as a leader in 1947. Over the next several years, Monk continued to produce new pieces and new recordings that only solidified his reputation as a difficult and iconoclastic figure. After taking an unwarranted drug rap rather than informing on a friend, he lost his New York cabaret card and had to confine much of his playing to his kitchen (where young acolytes like Sonny Rollins rehearsed).
In 1955, Monk's fortunes took a significant turn when he signed with Riverside Records. In a series of albums that quickly came to feature his music, as well as the best players of the period (including Rollins, John Coltrane, and Monk's former boss Hawkins), the profundity of Monk's music finally grew to be appreciated. Once he obtained reinstatement of his cabaret card in 1957, he began an extended stay at the Five Spot with a quartet featuring Coltrane that was hailed as the most profound meeting of jazz giants since Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
Over the next 15 years, Monk became an international jazz star, touring frequently with a quartet that, after Coltrane, featured Johnny Griffin and (for more than a decade) Charlie Rouse. He also made brilliant solo recordings and led large ensembles in Town Hall and Philharmonic Hall concerts of his music that resulted in live recordings. After touring with a Giants of Jazz sextet that also featured his old friends Gillespie and Art Blakey, Monk withdrew from the public eye and spent the final decade of his life in seclusion. His music continued to gain popularity, however, and shows no sign of losing its influence as younger musicians continue to mine his ideas for further inspiration.
Photo & bio courtesy of Concord Music Group