Thelonious Monk

Part One [Part Two immediately follows]

Thelonious Sphere Monk – for some, the name says it all. Monk the musician was a total original, in jazz and in music itself.   Both he and his music were unique, unlike anything that came before or would follow. Once called “the mad Monk,” and “the high priest of bebop,” Monk himself once said, “I say, play your own way. Don’t play what the public wants. You play what you want and let the public pick up on what you’re doing – even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years.” The public is still picking up what Monk was doing, almost 20 years after his death in 1982.

Born October 10, 1917, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, he and his parents soon moved to New York City. Monk took piano lessons as a young boy and by the time he was 13 he had been barred from entering the weekly amateur contests at the Apollo Theater because he’d won them so often.

The pianist and writer Mary Lou Williams reported meeting him in Kansas City in the mid-1930s.   “Thelonious, still in his teens, came into town with either an evangelist or a medicine show – I forget which.   While he was in Kaycee he jammed every night, really used to blow on piano, employing a lot more technique than he [did later]. He felt that musicians should play something new and started doing it. He was one of the original modernists all right.”

When he was 19 Monk joined the house band at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. In 1947, not quite 10 years later, Monk told Down Beat, “Be-bop wasn’t developed in any deliberate way.   For my part, I’ll say it was just the style of music I happened to play. We all contributed ideas…. Along with the bass and drums, I was always at the spot and could keep working on the music. The rest, like Dizzy [Gillespie] and Charlie [Parker], came in only from time to time at first.”   Trumpeter Richard Williams said, “By the time he joined the after-hours jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse … he had become a complete original – as a pianist who seemed to be engaged in a search for the notes between the keys, and as a composer of sharp-elbowed tunes.”

By sheer good fortune, some of these sessions in 1941 were recorded by a jazz fan named Jerry Newman, who lugged a 78-rpm disk recorder up to Harlem. These recordings – of fairly dubious fidelity – have for years been described as “amateur,” but in fact they were made for radio broadcast, as “delayed on disk” “live” broadcasts. There were four Minton’s Playhouse broadcasts, which have supplied the material for all the records released subsequently. (They include The Immortal Charlie Christian on Laserlight, CD 17 032; Don Byas: Live at Minton’s on Musidisc 30 JA 5121; and The Early Thelonious Monk on Moon CD 086-2, as well as LPs released on Everest, Counterpoint/Esoteric, Xanadu, ARC/Society and other labels. Many, if not most of these were quasi-bootlegs, with material duplicated by different labels. Some were taken from Newman’s 78 masters and others from the AM radio broadcasts.   None are mentioned in jazz record-collecting price guides, but the original 1950s LPs were small-run pressings and now quite rare.)

In 1944 Monk joined the Coleman Hawkins Quartet. Hawkins was one of the very first jazz saxophonists (on tenor sax), having begun his career in the 1920s. His 1938 recording of “Body and Soul” was an immediate classic, and “Bean,” as Hawkins was affectionately known, was the man all other tenor players were compared to or contrasted with. Although he gained prominence in the Swing era, Hawkins stayed on top of the newer developments in jazz and was hospitable to Bop. On October 19, 1944, Hawkins’ Quartet with Monk on piano recorded four sides, which have been released as part of Bean & the Boys, on Prestige (7824; CD 24124-2).  

In 1946 Monk briefly joined Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band, and was recorded in June and July of that year at the Spotlite Club in New York for nine tracks of The Legendary Dizzy Gillespie Big Band – Live 1946 (Bandstand BDCD 1534), one of them Monk’s own composition, “’Round Midnight,” which would subsequently become a jazz standard.

In 1947 Monk began recording as a leader for the Blue Note label. His early records (all singles) were not well received by the jazz press. Down Beat referred to Monk as someone who “generally plays bad, though interesting, piano,” and accused him of “veritably faking a rather large order.” In fact by then Monk had developed a unique piano technique which involved playing with the fingers straight and splayed out, often striking two adjacent notes on the keyboard. What his early critics failed to understand was that he did this deliberately, playing the quarter-tones which lurked “in the crack” between those two notes.   These Blue Note sides were collected first on two 10-inch LPs, Genius of Modern Music, Volumes 1 (BLP-5002) and 2 (BLP-5009), released in 1951 and 1952. Volume 1 is now valued at $300 to $500 (depending on condition); volume 2 at $200 to $400. In 1956 Blue Note reissued them as 12-inch LPs, in two editions, one pressed with “deep grooves.” The “deep groove” editions are worth $125 to $250; the regular pressings $100 to $200.   Both versions carry the same catalogue numbers: Vol. 1 is BLP-1510; Vol. 2 is BLP-1511.   (CD versions of these albums exist on Blue Note, but do not coincide with the LPs. Blue Note has also issued The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk, BN 30363, a four-CD box set which includes alternate takes and material recorded with and under Milt Jackson’s name as well.)

Part Two

[The first two paragraphs of Part Two were a briefer recapitulation of the first four paragraphs of Part One and have been deleted.]

Monk himself said, “Jazz is my adventure. I’m after new chords, new ways of syncopating, new figures, new runs. How to use notes differently. That’s it. Just using notes differently.”

And John Coltrane, who played with Monk in the 1950s, said, “I think Monk is one of the true greats of all time.   He’s a real musical thinker – there’s not many like him.”

In the early 1950s Monk recorded four albums for Prestige. In 1953 Prestige released two 10-inch LPs, Thelonious Monk Trio (PRLP-142) and Thelonious Monk Quintet with Sonny Rollins and Julius Watkins (PRLP-166), the latter his trio (with drums and bass) augmented by Rollins’ tenor sax and Watkins’ French horn. (Both are nor valued at $150 to $300, depending on their condition.)   In 1954 Prestige released two more 10-inch LPs, Thelonious Monk Quintet (PRLP-180), and Thelonious Monk Trio (PRLP-189), both valued at the same prices as the prior Prestige LPs.

The material on these four 10-inch LPs was repackaged and reissued by Prestige on a series of 12-inch LPs in 1956 and 1957 (Thelonious Monk, PRLP-7027; Monk, PRLP-7053; Thelonious Monk/Sonny Rollins, PRLP-7075 – all worth from $50 to $125), which were themselves reissued with new titles and catalog numbers starting in 1959 and continuing into the mid-1960s (as Monk’s Moods, PRLP-7159, a reissue of 7027; Work, PRLP-7169, a reissue of 7075; and We See, PRLP-7245, a reissue of 7053). (We See was later again reissued as The Golden Monk, PRLP-7363; Monk’s Moods as The High Priest, PRLP-7508; and Work as The Genius of Thelonious Monk, PRST-7656 – in “electronically rechanneled” fake stereo.) 

Interestingly enough, 1956 was also the year Blue Note repackaged its two-volume Genius of Modern Music 10-inch LPs as 12-inch LPs.  

What had happened?   Riverside Records had happened. A label which had started out with reissues of traditional jazz recordings from the 1930s and 1940s had begun poking its toes in the waters of modern jazz. Riverside signed Monk in 1955 and began a series of ambitious recordings with him which were well-produced and well-packaged, and were subsequently well-marketed as well. The first was one designed to introduce Monk to a wider audience, Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington (RLP-12-201). (The original, first edition of this LP, with a photo cover, is worth $200 to $400.   Three years later Riverside reissued the album with the same catalog number, but with a cover reproduction of Henri Rousseau’s painting, “The Repast of the Lion.” This, much more common version of the LP, is worth only $16 to $40.)  

Monk owed a debt to the Harlem stride pianists of the 1920s, out of which Ellington had come, and Ellington himself had heard Monk, and understood and appreciated what he was doing, so Monk playing Ellington was not a surprise. But, to those who had been prepared by his earlier and more adventurous work for Blue Note and Prestige, it was somewhat disappointing.   So was his second Riverside album, released in 1956, The Unique Thelonious Monk (RLP-12-209; worth $40 to $100), which consisted entirely of standards, albeit uniquely interpreted. But if these albums did not advance the frontiers of jazz, they did advance Monk’s fortunes and establish him with a much larger audience – leading Blue Note and Prestige to dust off their Monk recordings and return them to the market.

And Riverside finally allowed Monk to premiere new compositions of his own on his third album, Brilliant Corners (RLP-12-226), in 1957. (The album, like most of his Riverside albums, is now valued at $16 to $40.) Riverside went on to issue 12 additional albums by Monk by 1963, the year he signed to Columbia. And Monk would record another ten albums for Columbia in the 1960s. While these albums (some of them recorded live at club dates) documented Monk’s working group (usually with Johnny Griffin on tenor sax) and are well worth hearing, they lack something in comparison with his Blue Note and Prestige recordings – a sense of freshness, perhaps. Although Monk was uncompromisingly himself throughout his career, his music achieved a plateau in the mid-1950s beyond which he did not climb further.

Both the Prestige albums and the Riverside albums are now available from Fantasy’s Original Jazz Classics label on CD, and Sony/CBS has reissued the Columbia albums on CD.

Thelonious Monk died in 1982, at the age of 65. (29638 bytes)