Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Monk, Thelonious (Sphere)

Thelonious Monk's intricate use of harmony, percussive technique, and angular solos made him one of the main architects of modern jazz piano. His compositions, such as "'Round Midnight" and "Well You Needn't" are favorites of jazz performers to this day.

          Bronze Monk, artwork by Martel Chapman

Thelonious Sphere Monk was born on October 10th, 1917 in the small town of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, 45 miles outside of the state capital of Raleigh. Monk was born to Thelonious Monk Senior and Barbara Batts. According to Monk’s birth certificate, his parents resided 815 Green Street in Rocky Mount. The certificate also shows that Monk was the couple's second child.

When Monk was four years old, his family packed up and left North Carolina for New York City. Monk took up piano at the age nine, and by thirteen he was barred from entering the Apollo Theatre’s amateur night competition because he had won it so many times. Monk attended Manhattan's prestigious Stuyvesant High School on East 23rd Street but failed to graduate.

By the early 1940s, Monk was the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse, which became the laboratory for the style now known as bebop. There, Monk was in constant contact with bebop pioneers Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Christian. During this period, Monk’s style was very heavily rooted in stride piano. Monk stated that some of his chief influences during this time were James P. Johnson and Duke Ellington. Drummer Kenny Clarke, who led the house band at Minton’s, helped Monk compose his first song, “Epistrophy.”

In 1944, Monk worked briefly with Cootie Williams’ big band and later that year the band recorded Monk’s best-known composition, “Round About Midnight,” with Bud Powell on piano in place of Monk. That same year Monk made his recording debut with tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.

In 1947, Monk signed with Alfred Lion’s Blue Note Records, which released the pianist’s first album Genius Of Modern Music Volume One. This album contained many of Monk’s compositions that went on to become jazz standards, including “Round Midnight.” ” Ruby My Dear,” and “In Walked Bud.”

Monk recorded several sessions for Blue Note between 1947 and 1952, which culminated in the several albums including Genius Of Modern Music Volume 2 and Best Of the Blue Note Recordings. Several of Monk’s best-known compositions made their first appearances on these Blue Note sessions, including “Straight No Chaser” and “Criss Cross.”

In 1949, Monk’s wife Nellie gave birth to Monk’s son T.S. Monk, who has become a well-respected jazz drummer. In 1950, Monk worked with alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and appeared on the recordings "Bloomdido" and "My Melancholy Baby."

In 1951, a serious event took place when Monk and Bud Powell were sitting in a parked car and the police searched the vehicle and recovered narcotics, which were rumored to have belonged to Powell. Monk refused to implicate his fellow pianist and as a result his New York Cabaret Card was revoked. This revocation meant that Monk was unable to perform in any venue in the city, which served liquor. This put severe limitation on the pianist’s ability to work and forced him to play small theatres and many out of town engagements.

In 1952, Monk signed with Prestige Records. The label released several underappreciated Monk albums including Thelonious Monk Trio and Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins. In 1954, Monk took part in two historic recording sessions for trumpeter Miles Davis. These two albums Bags Groove and Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants were both released on Prestige as well. Monk appears on the song “Bemsha Swing” from the latter album.

In late 1954, Monk’s contract with Prestige was bought out by rival jazz label Riverside Records, where Monk recorded until 1961. His first album for Riverside was Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, which featured Monk’s interpretation of “Caravan.” This album was followed by 1956’s Brilliant Corners, which featured tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, drummer Max Roach, and bassist Oscar Pettiford.

In 1957, Monk’s cabaret card was reinstated in New York and he began a six month engagement at the Five Spot in Manhattan along with tenor great John Coltrane. Much of the greatness heard from these collaborations can be heard on the Riverside recording Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, which was released on April 16th, 1957. That same year, Riverside released the album Monk’s Music, which contained the song “Well You Needn’t.”

In 1957, Riverside also released the album Thelonious Himself, which featured the songs “Monk’s Mood” and a solo version of “Round Midnight.”

Also during 1957, Monk recorded the album Mulligan Meets Monk for Riverside, which featured yet another interpretation of “Round Midnight.” Other albums released by Riverside also included 1959’s Alone In San Francisco, which featured the song “There’s Danger In Your Eyes, Cherie.”

In 1958, Monk and his friend baroness Nica de Koenigswarter were stopped in Wilmington, Delaware where police were suspicious that narcotics were being held in the baroness’s suitcase. When Monk refused to cooperate with the authorities, he was beat profusely. Eventually the case was overturned and no charges were brought against either man.

In 1962, Monk’s career underwent a huge resurgence. He signed with powerhouse label Columbia Records and suddenly he began to receive the credit from the general public that musicians had long adorned him with. In 1962, Columbia released Monk’s Dream, which showcased Monk’s tunes with his long time collaborator tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. In 1964, Columbia released the album Live At the Jazz Workshop. This album featured the song “Bright Mississippi," which was based the melody and chords of “Sweet Georgia Brown.”

On February 28th, 1964 Monk appeared on the cover of Time magazine. He was featured in the article “The Loneliest Monk,” which chronicled the pianist’s life and career. In 1968, Columbia released Underground. In contrast to Monk’s Dream, which featured old Monk songs, this album featured several new compositions including “Ugly Beauty” and “Green Chimneys.”

In the early 1970s, Monk toured the world with the jazz roadshow Giants of Jazz, which also featured trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Sonny Stitt, and drummer Art Blakey. Monk recorded in 1971 for Black Lion Records, based out of London, but eventually ceased to perform and retired into seclusion. Monk made several appearances before his death including a performance at Carnegie Hall and performances at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1975 and 1976, respectively.

Monk spent that last few years of his life in Weehawken, New Jersey at the estate of his friend the baroness de Koenigswater. Monk began to suffer from some kind of unexplained mental incapacities towards the latter part of his career, but the cause of his instabilities has never been pinpointed. Monk died of a stroke at the age of 64 on February 17th, 1982 at the baroness’s estate. He was buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

Interest in Monk’s musical legacy has revived since his death. Many of his compositions are jazz standards and continue to be reinterpreted by contemporary jazz artists. His son T.S. Monk founded the Thelonious Monk Institute in 1993, which recognizes the work of outstanding young jazz artists with an annual competition judged by leading jazz musicians, such as pianist Herbie Hancock. In addition to his son T.S., Monk had a daughter, nicknamed “Boo-Boo,” who passed away in 1984.

Select Discography

As Thelonious Monk

Genius of Modern Music Volume 1 (Blue Note, 1947)

Genius of Modern Music Volume 2 (Blue Note, 1948)

Thelonious Monk Trio (Prestige, 1952)

Brilliant Corners (Riverside, 1956)

Thelonious Himself (Riverside, 1957)

Monk’s Dream (Columbia, 1962)

Underground (Columbia, 1968)

With Gerry Mulligan

Mulligan Meets Monk (Riverside, 1957)

With Art Blakey

Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk (Atlantic, 1957)

With Miles Davis

Miles Davis and the Giants of Jazz (Prestige, 1954)

Bags Groove (Prestige, 1954)

With Sonny Rollins

Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins (Prestige, 1953)

Contributor: Jared Pauley