Thelonious Monk

Born 10 October 1917. Died 17 February 1982.
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History of the Piano Pt 5 - Bebop

The fifth installment of Richard Michael's History of the Piano delves into the Bebop era.

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Famous as an eccentric, both for his unorthodox appearance, and the spiky individuality of his melodies, Thelonious Monk was one of the most dominant influences on the 1940s modern jazz, or bebop, revolution. He introduced numerous unusual harmonic ideas into jazz, and through his playing at Minton's club in New York, where he was the house pianist, he jammed with many of the architects of the new music - including drummer Kenny Clarke and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

Born in the South, he had grown up in New York, playing in Harlem, and then accompanying a travelling gospel singer, before becoming a regular part of the New York jazz scene as a sideman with numerous bands. He came to widespread attention as a member of Coleman Hawkins's band in 1944-5, briefly joined Dizzy Gillespie's big band in 1946 and the following year began his own recording career.

His first discs for Alfred Lion's Blue Note label were distinctive and original and announced the arrival of a new talent - but unfortunately they did not sell particularly well. But two producers who were equally visionary as Lion, Bob Weinstock at Prestige and Orrin Keepnews at Riverside records, continued to record Monk through the 1950s, capturing the flowering of his talent.

In due course he signed to Columbia records for the duration of the 1960s. In the 70s he made a few recordings, toured with an all star group including Gillespie called the Giants of Jazz, and gradually disappeared from public view, ending his life in seclusion. His piano style was jaunty, percussive and highly unusual, using almost no aspects of classical technique.

Nevertheless, it was highly effective, both visually and aurally, and has been an influence on many subsequent players. Equally, several of Monk's compositions have entered the mainstream of jazz, from ballads such as Round Midnight to his more unusual numbers Brilliant Corners, Epistrophy, Eronel, Evidence, Hackensack, Misterioso, Ruby My Dear, Straight No Chaser, and Thelonious.

For most of his last two decades as an active musician he led a quartet of saxophone, piano, bass and drums, and his music is preserved today by the group Sphere, with similar line-up and Kenny Barron taking the piano parts. Monk's son, T.S. Monk, is a well-known drummer who has been extremely active in establishing the Thelonious Monk Foundation in memory of his father.

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BBC Reviews

  1. Review of Thelonious Monk Trio

    Thelonious Monk Trio 2007

    Reviewed by Charles De Ledesma
    Monk's prime Prestige sides given a dusting-down...
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