Thelonious Monk, at Minton's Playhouse, New York, 1947
|Birth name||Thelonious Sphere Monk|
October 10, 1917|
Rocky Mount, North Carolina, United States
|Died||February 17, 1982
Englewood, New Jersey, United States
|Genres||Jazz, bebop, hard bop|
|Labels||Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside, Columbia|
|Associated acts||Milt Jackson, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Oscar Pettiford, John Coltrane|
Thelonious Sphere Monk (October 10, 1917 – February 17, 1982) was an American jazz pianist and composer, considered one of the giants of American music. Monk had a unique improvisational style and made numerous contributions to the standard jazz repertoire, including "Epistrophy", "'Round Midnight", "Blue Monk", "Straight, No Chaser" and "Well, You Needn't". Monk is the second-most recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington, which is particularly remarkable as Ellington composed over 1,000 songs while Monk wrote about 70.
His compositions and improvisations are full of dissonant harmonies and angular melodic twists, and are consistent with Monk's unorthodox approach to the piano, which combined a highly percussive attack with abrupt, dramatic use of silences and hesitations. This style was not universally appreciated, shown for instance in poet and jazz critic Philip Larkin's dismissal of Monk as "the elephant on the keyboard".
Monk's manner was idiosyncratic. Visually, he was renowned for his distinctive style in suits, hats and sunglasses. He was also noted for the fact that at times, while the other musicians in the band continued playing, he would stop, stand up from the keyboard and dance for a few moments before returning to the piano.
Early life 
Thelonious Monk was born October 10, 1917, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the son of Thelonious and Barbara Monk, two years after his sister Marion. A brother, Thomas, was born in January 1920. In 1922, the family moved to 243 West 63rd Street, in Manhattan, New York City. Monk started playing the piano at the age of six. Although he had some formal training and eavesdropped on his sister's piano lessons, he was largely self-taught. Monk attended Stuyvesant High School, but did not graduate. He toured with an evangelist in his teens, playing the church organ, and in his late teens he began to find work playing jazz.
In the early to mid-1940s, Monk was the house pianist at Minton's Playhouse, a Manhattan nightclub. Much of Monk's style was developed during his time at Minton's, when he participated in after-hours "cutting competitions" which featured many leading jazz soloists of the time. The Minton's scene was crucial in the formulation of bebop and it brought Monk into close contact with other leading exponents of the emerging idiom, 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.
Mary Lou Williams, who acted as a mentor to Monk and his compatriots, spoke of Monk's rich inventiveness in this period, and how such invention was vital for musicians since at the time it was common for fellow musicians to incorporate overheard musical ideas into their own works without giving due credit. "So, the boppers worked out a music that was hard to steal. I'll say this for the 'leeches', though: they tried. I've seen them in Minton's busily writing on their shirt cuffs or scribbling on the tablecloth. And even our own guys, I'm afraid, did not give Monk the credit he had coming. Why, they even stole his idea of the beret and bop glasses."
Early recordings (1944–1954) 
In 1944 Monk made his first studio recordings with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet. Hawkins was among the first prominent jazz musicians to promote Monk, and Monk later returned the favor by inviting Hawkins to join him on the 1957 session with John Coltrane. Monk made his first recordings as leader for Blue Note in 1947 (later anthologised on Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1) which showcased his talents as a composer of original melodies for improvisation. Monk married Nellie Smith the same year, and in 1949 the couple had a son, T. S. Monk, who is a jazz drummer. A daughter, Barbara (affectionately known as Boo-Boo), was born in 1953.
In August 1951, New York City police searched a parked car occupied by Monk and friend Bud Powell. The police found narcotics in the car, presumed to have belonged to Powell. Monk refused to testify against his friend, so the police confiscated his New York City Cabaret Card. Without the all-important cabaret card he was unable to play in any New York venue where liquor was served, and this severely restricted his ability to perform for several crucial years. Monk spent most of the early and mid-1950s composing, recording, and performing at theaters and out-of-town gigs.
After his cycle of intermittent recording sessions for Blue Note during 1947–1952, he was under contract to Prestige Records for the following two years. With Prestige he cut several highly significant, but at the time under-recognized, albums, including collaborations with saxophonist Sonny Rollins and drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach. In 1954, Monk participated in a Christmas Eve session which produced most of the albums Bags' Groove and Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants by Miles Davis. Davis found Monk's idiosyncratic accompaniment style difficult to improvise over and asked him to lay out (not accompany), which almost brought them to blows. However, in Miles Davis' autobiography Miles, Davis claims that the anger and tension between Monk and himself never took place and that the claims of blows being exchanged were "rumors" and a "misunderstanding".
In 1954, Monk paid his first visit to Europe, performing and recording in Paris. Backstage Mary Lou Williams introduced him to Baroness Pannonica "Nica" de Koenigswarter, a member of the Rothschild family and a patroness of several New York City jazz musicians. She would be a close friend for the rest of Monk's life, including taking responsibility for him when she and Monk were charged with marijuana possession.
Riverside Records (1955–1961) 
||This section needs additional citations for verification. (June 2011)|
At the time of his signing to Riverside, Monk was highly regarded by his peers and by some critics, but his records did not sell in significant numbers, and his music was still regarded as too "difficult" for mass-market acceptance. Indeed, with Monk's consent, Riverside had managed to buy out his previous Prestige contract for a mere $108.24. He willingly recorded two albums of jazz standards as a means of increasing his profile. The first of these, Thelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington, featuring bass innovator Oscar Pettiford and drummer Kenny Clarke, included Ellington pieces "Caravan" and "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)".
On the 1956 LP Brilliant Corners, Monk recorded his own music. The complex title track, which featured tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, was so difficult to play that the final version had to be edited together from multiple takes. The album, however, was largely regarded as the first success for Monk; according to Orrin Keepnews, "It was the first that made a real splash."
After having his cabaret card restored, Monk relaunched his New York career with a landmark six-month residency at the Five Spot Cafe in New York beginning in June 1957, leading a quartet with John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Wilbur Ware on bass, and Shadow Wilson on drums. Unfortunately little of this group's music was documented due to contractual problems, Coltrane being signed to Prestige at the time. One short studio session was made for Riverside (only released later by its subsidiary Jazzland in 1961) and a larger group recording featuring Coltrane was split between that album and Monk's Music; an amateur tape from the Five Spot (not the original residency, but a later September 1958 reunion with Coltrane sitting in for Johnny Griffin) was issued on Blue Note in 1993; and a recording of the quartet performing at a Carnegie Hall concert on November 29, previously "rumoured to exist", was recorded in high fidelity by Voice of America, rediscovered in the collection of the Library of Congress in 2005 and released by Blue Note.
"Crepuscule With Nellie", recorded in 1957, "was Monk's only, what's called through-composed composition, meaning that there is no improvising. It is Monk's concerto, if you will, and in some ways it speaks for itself. But he wrote it very, very carefully and very deliberately and really struggled to make it sound the way it sounds. [... I]t was his love song for Nellie," said biographer Kelley in an interview.
The Five Spot residency ended Christmas 1957, Coltrane left to rejoin Miles Davis's seminal sextet, and the band was effectively disbanded. Monk did not form another long-term band until June 1958, when he began a second residency at the Five Spot, again with a quartet, this time with Griffin (and later Charlie Rouse) on tenor, Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums.
On October 15, 1958, the residency having ended and en route to a week-long engagement for the quartet at the Comedy Club in Baltimore, Maryland, Monk and de Koenigswarter were detained by police in Wilmington, Delaware. When Monk refused to answer the policemen's questions or cooperate with them, they beat him with a blackjack. Though the police were authorized to search the vehicle and found narcotics in suitcases held in the trunk of the Baroness's car, Judge Christie of the Delaware Superior Court ruled that the unlawful detention of the pair, and the beating of Monk, rendered the consent to the search void as given under duress. Monk was represented by Theophilus Nix, the second African-American member of the Delaware Bar Association.
Columbia Records (1962–1970) 
After extended negotiations, Monk signed in 1962 to Columbia Records, one of the big four American record labels of the day along with RCA Victor, Capitol, and Decca. Monk's relationship with Riverside had soured over disagreements concerning royalty payments and had concluded with a brace of European live albums; he had not recorded a studio album since 5 by Monk by 5 in June 1959.
Working with producer Teo Macero on his debut for the label, the sessions in the first week of November had a stable line-up that had been with him for two years: tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse (who worked with Monk from 1959 to 1970), bassist John Ore, and drummer Frankie Dunlop. Monk's Dream, his earliest Columbia album, was released in 1963.
Columbia's resources allowed Monk to be promoted more widely than earlier in his career. Monk's Dream would become the best-selling LP of his lifetime, and on February 28, 1964, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, being featured in the article "The Loneliest Monk". He continued to record a number of well-reviewed studio albums, particularly Criss Cross, also from 1963, and Underground, from 1968. But by the Columbia years his compositional output was limited, and only his final Columbia studio record Underground featured a substantial number of new tunes, including his only waltz time piece, "Ugly Beauty".
As had been the case with Riverside, his period with Columbia Records contains many live albums, including Miles and Monk at Newport (1963), Live at the It Club and Live at the Jazz Workshop, both recorded in 1964, the latter not being released until 1982. After the departure of Ore and Dunlop, the remainder of the rhythm section in Monk's quartet during the bulk of his Columbia period was Larry Gales on bass and Ben Riley on drums, both of whom joined in 1964, Along with Rouse, they remained with Monk for over four years, his longest-serving band.
According to biographer Kelley, the 1964 Time appearance came because "Barry Farrell, who wrote the cover story, wanted to write about a jazz musician and almost by default Monk was chosen, because they thought Ray Charles and Miles Davis were too controversial. ... [Monk] wasn't so political. [...O]f course, I challenge that [in the biography]," said Kelley.
Later life 
Monk had disappeared from the scene by the mid-1970s, and made only a small number of appearances during the final decade of his life. His last studio recordings as a leader were made in November 1971 for the English Black Lion label, near the end of a worldwide tour with "The Giants of Jazz," a group which included Dizzy Gillespie, Kai Winding, Sonny Stitt, Al McKibbon and Art Blakey. Bassist Al McKibbon, who had known Monk for over twenty years and played on his final tour in 1971, later said: "On that tour Monk said about two words. I mean literally maybe two words. He didn't say 'Good morning', 'Goodnight', 'What time?' Nothing. Why, I don't know. He sent word back after the tour was over that the reason he couldn't communicate or play was that Art Blakey and I were so ugly." A different side of Monk is revealed in Lewis Porter's biography, John Coltrane: His Life and Music; Coltrane states: "Monk is exactly the opposite of Miles [Davis]: he talks about music all the time, and he wants so much for you to understand that if, by chance, you ask him something, he'll spend hours if necessary to explain it to you."
The documentary film Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988) attributes Monk's quirky behaviour to mental illness. In the film, Monk's son, T. S. Monk, says that his father sometimes did not recognize him, and he reports that Monk was hospitalized on several occasions due to an unspecified mental illness that worsened in the late 1960s. No reports or diagnoses were ever publicized, but Monk would often become excited for two or three days, pace for days after that, after which he would withdraw and stop speaking. Physicians recommended electroconvulsive therapy as a treatment option for Monk's illness, but his family would not allow it; antipsychotics and lithium were prescribed instead. Other theories abound: Leslie Gourse, author of the book Straight, No Chaser: The Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk (1997), reported that at least one of Monk's psychiatrists failed to find evidence of manic depression or schizophrenia. Another physician maintains that Monk was misdiagnosed and prescribed drugs during his hospital stay that may have caused brain damage.
As his health declined, Monk's last six years were spent as a guest in the Weehawken, New Jersey home of his long-standing patron and friend, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who had also nursed Charlie Parker during his final illness. Monk did not play the piano during this time, even though one was present in his room, and he spoke to few visitors. He died of a stroke on February 17, 1982, and was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. In 1993, he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2006, Monk was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation.
Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy performed as Monk's accompanist in 1960. Monk's tunes became a permanent part of his repertoire in concert and on albums. Lacy released several albums entirely focused on Monk's compositions including Reflections, School Days, Epistrophy, Eronel, Only Monk, and More Monk.
Record producer J Dilla produced the hip hop track "Thelonious" on rapper Common's album Like Water For Chocolate dedicated to Monk's music and memory and the influence of jazz on the underground hip hop community.
Round Midnight Variations is a collection of variations on the song "'Round Midnight" premiered in 2002. Composers contributing included Roberto Andreoni, Milton Babbitt, Alberto Barbero, Carlo Boccadoro, William Bolcom, David Crumb. George Crumb, Michael Daugherty, Filippo Del Corno, John Harbison, Joel Hoffman, Aaron Jay Kernis, Gerald Levinson, Tobias Picker, Matthew Quayle, Frederic Rzewski, Augusta Read Thomas and Michael Torke.
Blue Note Records (1948–1952) 
- Genius of Modern Music: Volume 1 (1947 Blue Note recordings)
- Genius of Modern Music: Volume 2 (1951–1952 Blue Note recordings)
Prestige Records (1952–1954) 
- Thelonious Monk Trio (Prestige 7027), 1952–4
- Monk (Prestige 7053) recorded 1953-4
- Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins (Prestige 7075), recorded 1953-4
Riverside Records (1955–1961) 
- Thelonious Monk plays the Music of Duke Ellington (1955)
- The Unique Thelonious Monk (1955)
- Brilliant Corners (1956 recording with Sonny Rollins and Clark Terry)
- Thelonious Himself (1957)
- Monk's Music (1957)
- Mulligan Meets Monk (1957, with Gerry Mulligan)
- Thelonious in Action and Misterioso (1958, live at the Five Spot with Johnny Griffin)
- The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall (1959, Charlie Rouse joined the band then)
- 5 by Monk by 5 (1959)
- Thelonious Alone in San Francisco (1959)
- Thelonious Monk at the Blackhawk (1960, with Charlie Rouse)
- Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane (1957 recordings, 1961 issue) – Inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007.
- Monk in France (recorded in 1961)
- Thelonious Monk in Italy (recorded 1961, released 1963)
- Thelonious Monk and the Jazz Giants (1987)
- Thelonious Monk Quartet Live at the Five Spot: Discovery! (with Coltrane recorded 1957, released in 1993 on Blue Note)
- Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (1957, released 2005 on Blue Note.)
- The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings (2006 collection of the 1957 studio recordings with Coltrane)
Columbia Records (1962–1968) 
- Monk's Dream (1963)
- Criss-Cross (1963)
- Monk in Tokyo (1963)
- Miles & Monk at Newport (1963, with unrelated 1958 Miles Davis performance)
- Big Band and Quartet in Concert (1963)
- It's Monk's Time (1964)
- Monk (1964)
- Solo Monk (1964)
- Live at the It Club (1964)
- Live at the Jazz Workshop (1964)
- Straight, No Chaser (1966)
- Underground (1967)
- Monk's Blues (1968)
Other labels 
- Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk (Atlantic, 1958)
- Thelonious Monk Nonet Live In Paris 1967 (France Concert LP FC-113, 1967)
- The Giants of Jazz (Atlantic, 1971) with Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Al McKibbon, Sonny Stitt and Kai Winding
As sideman 
With Coleman Hawkins
- Bean and the Boys (Prestige 7824) 1944
With Milt Jackson
With Miles Davis
With Sonny Rollins
With Gigi Gryce
- Nica's Tempo (Savoy, 1955)
With Clark Terry
- In Orbit (Riverside, 1958)
- Monk's Miracles (1966)
- Monk's Greatest Hits (Columbia, 1968)
- Midnight at Minton's (c.1941, issued 1973 under Don Byas' name. Monk does not play on all tracks of this or the other two CDs of 1941 material)
- After Hours (c.1941, issued 1973 under Charlie Christian's name)
- After Hours in Harlem c.1941, issued 1973 under Hot Lips Page's name
- April in Paris (Monk album)|April in Paris (1981 2-LP set of the April 18, 1961 Paris recordings)
- Monk's Classic Recordings (1983)
- Blues Five Spot (1984, unissued recordings from 1958–61, with various saxophonists and Thad Jones, cornet)
- Something in Blue, Nice Work in London, Blue Sphere and The Man I Love (all 1971 recordings, collected in The London Collection 1988, three CDs)
- The Complete Riverside Recordings of Thelonious Monk (1991, 15 CD, Riverside)
- The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk (1994, 4 CD, Blue Note)
- Live at Monterey Jazz Festival '63 (sept. 21–2, 1963, MFSL, 2 vols. issued 1996-7)
- Monk Alone: The Complete Solo Studio Recordings of Thelonious Monk 1962–1968 (1998, 2 CD, Sony)
- The Complete Prestige Recordings of Thelonious Monk (2000, 3 CD, Prestige)
- The Columbia Years: '62–'68 (2001, 3 CD, Sony)
- The Complete Vogue Recordings/The Black Lion Sessions (1954–71) (3LP, Mosaic)
- All Monk. The Riverside Albums (2010, 16 CD, Universal)
- The Thelonious Monk Quartet Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection (2012, 6 CD, Sony)
- Yanow, Scott. "Thelonious Monk". AllMusic. Retrieved 2012-03-31.
- "Thelonious Monk (American musician) – Britannica Online Encyclopedia". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2012-03-31.
- Robin D.G. Kelley Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of American Original, London: JR Books, 2010, p.1. The source identifies the day of Monk's fortieth birthday in 1957.
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton The Penguin Guide to Jazz, 2008, London: Penguin, p1020
- Giddins, Gary & Scott DeVeaux. Jazz (2009). New York: W.W. Norton & Co, ISBN 978-0-393-06861-0.
- Spencer, C. (2010). In the steps of Larkin. The Spectator, Sept. 2010, London.
- Time cover Feb. 28, 1964. Retrieved 2010-12-22.
- Search of Time covers for "jazz". Retrieved 2010-12-22.
- Robin D.G. Kelley Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, London: JR Books, 2010, p13
- "Mary Lou Williams interview, Melody Maker, 1954". Ratical.org. Retrieved 2012-03-31.
- Miles: The Autobiography With Quincy Troupe, 80
- Chris Sheridan Brilliant Corners: A Bio-Discography, 2001, Wesport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, p80
- "Looking At The Life And Times Of Thelonious Monk", transcript of interview with Robin D.G. Kelley by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, NPR; conducted in 2009, replayed December 17, 2010. Retrieved 2010-12-22.
- State v. De Koenigswarter, 177 A.2d 344 (Del. Super. 1962).
- Marmorstein, Gary. The Label The Story of Columbia Records. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 2007, pp. 314–315.
- Monk, Thelonious. Monk's Dream. Columbia reissue CK 63536, 2002, liner notes, p. 8
- Gabbard, Krin (February 28, 1964). "The Loneliest Monk". Time (Time, Inc.) 83 (9). Retrieved 2007-11-12.
- Voce, Steve (August 1, 2005). "Obituary: Al McKibbon". The Independent (Findarticles.com). Retrieved 2007-11-12.
- Porter, Lewis (1998). John Coltrane: His Life and Music. University of Michigan Press. p. 109. ISBN 0-472-10161-7.
- Gabbard, Krin (Autumn, 1999). "Evidence: Monk as Documentary Subject". Black Music Research Journal (Center for Black Music Research — Columbia College Chicago) 19 (2): 207–225. doi:10.2307/779343. JSTOR 779343.
- Spence, Sean A (October 24, 1998). "Thelonious Monk: His Life and Music". British Medical Journal (BMJ Publishing Group) 317 (7166): 1162A. PMC 1114134. PMID 9784478.
- "GRAMMY.com — Lifetime Achievement Award". Past Recipients. National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 2007-11-12.
- "The Pulitzer Prizes". 2006 Special Award. Columbia University. Archived from the original on October 9, 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-12. "A posthumous Special Citation to American composer Thelonious Monk for a body of distinguished and innovative musical composition that has had a significant and enduring impact on the evolution of jazz."
- "Art Blakey: Bu's Delights and Laments," by John B Litweiler in Downbeat magazine, March 25, 1976.
- "2009 Inductees". North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
- Matthew Quayle
- "Human Encounter Album", Salim Ghazi Saeedi's Official Website, salimworld.com, Nov 2011
- Grammy Hall of Fame
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Thelonious Monk|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Thelonious Monk|
- Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz
- The Official Thelonious Sphere Monk Website
- Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original – Official Website
- Thelonious Monk page in Jazz at Lincoln Center's Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame
- Thelonious Monk's birth certificate
- Roundabout Monk: The European Monk Website
- Thelonious Monk at All About Jazz
- IMDb entry for Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser
- CBC.ca Article on 2006 Pulitzer Prize Winners
- Thelonious Monk Multimedia Directory – Kerouac Alley
- Not So Misterioso: Robert Christgau on Monk
- Photo of Monk's grave at Findagrave