Cultural Percussionist

Thelonious Monk Day

Thelonious Sphere Monk (/θəˈlniəs/, October 10, 1917 – February 17, 1982 Rocky Mt, NC) was an American jazz pianist and composer. He had a unique improvisational style and made numerous contributions to the standard jazz repertoire, including “‘Round Midnight“, “Blue Monk“, “Straight, No Chaser“, “Ruby, My Dear“, “In Walked Bud“, and “Well, You Needn’t“. Monk is the second-most-recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington, which is particularly remarkable as Ellington composed more than a thousand pieces, whereas Monk wrote about 70.

Monk’s compositions and improvisations feature dissonances and angular melodic twists and are consistent with his unorthodox approach to the piano, which combined a highly percussive attack with abrupt, dramatic use of switched key releases, silences, and hesitations. His style was not universally appreciated; the poet and jazz critic Philip Larkin dismissed him as ‘the elephant on the keyboard’.

Monk was renowned for a distinct look which included suits, hats, and sunglasses. He was also noted for an idiosyncratic habit during performances: while other musicians continued playing, Monk stopped, stood up and danced for a few moments before returning to the piano.

Monk is one of five jazz musicians to have been featured on the cover of Time magazine. The others are Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis.

In his early teens, Monk toured with an evangelist, playing the church organ, and in his late teens he began to find work playing jazz. In the early to mid-1940s, he was the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse, a Manhattan nightclub. Much of Monk’s style (in the Harlem stride tradition) was developed during his time at Minton’s, when he participated in after-hours cutting contests, which featured many leading jazz soloists of the time. Monk’s musical work at Minton’s was crucial in the formulation of bebop, which would be furthered along by other artists, including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, Charlie Parker, and, later, Miles Davis.[ Monk is believed to be the pianist featured on recordings Jerry Newman made around 1941 at the club. Monk’s style at this time was later described as “hard-swinging,” with the addition of runs in the style of Art Tatum. Monk’s stated influences included Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and other early stride pianists. In the documentary Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, it is stated that Monk lived in the same neighborhood in New York City as Johnson and knew him as a teenager.

Share this post

Leave a Comment