Jazz at 100 Hour 43: Monk and Friends: Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols, & Elmo Hope in the 1950s

John Coltrane, Shadow Wilson, Thelonious Monk and Ahmed Abdul-Malik at the Five Spot, 1957

The 1950s were a very productive decade for Thelonious Monk, perhaps his most productive as a composer. During the fifties his reputation and impact grew tremendously. His influence on other pianists can be seen in the work of Elmo Hope and Herbie Nichols, among others. Although neither had the longevity or enjoyed the popularity that Monk did, as the years go by their reputations have grown.

In this hour, we will turn to idiosyncratic pianist/composers Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols and Elmo Hope in the 1950s.

Thelonious Monk – Brilliant Corners
Monk recorded for Blue Note from 1947 – 52 and then for Prestige for two years, developing a reputation as a composer and player far outside the norm. “In 1955, Monk signed with a new independent label, Riverside, and reluctantly agreed to begin his contract by recording well-known themes by Ellington and other popular songwriters. The idea was to disarm skeptical listeners by demonstrating that he could play in a conventional jazz setting, before focusing on original music. The plan worked. Monk’s third Riverside album, Brilliant Corners, which featured Sonny Rollins and Max Roach, was hailed as a major jazz event in 1956.” – Gary Giddins & Scott DeVeaux

“On the title cut that opens the LP, both saxophonists [Ernie Henry and Sonny Rollins] and [drummer Max] Roach, challenged by the tune’s eccentricity (they never did get the head quite right, and the take finally released was spliced together from various attempts) and by Monk’s suggestive comping, turn in inspired performances. The raunchy, squawky theme, played first in medium tempo and then faster, leads into a Rollins solo marked by wide intervalic leaps, extended harmonies, and phrases that begin and end in unwonted places. Then Monk comes in, all minor seconds, dissonances, and idiosyncratic runs and fillips. Henry is gruff and raw, leaning heavily on his vocalized tone, from which he draws a variety of growls and slurs. The last soloist is Roach, playing melodically and even quoting the tune at times.” – David Rosenthal

Brilliant Corners. Thelonious Monk Quintet
(Ernie Henry-as, Sonny Rollins-ts, Thelonious Monk-p, Oscar Pettiford-b, Max Roach-d). From Brilliant Corners. 10/15/1956

Pannonica. Thelonious Monk Quintet
(Ernie Henry-as, Sonny Rollins-ts, Thelonious Monk-p, Oscar Pettiford-b, Max Roach-d). From Brilliant Corners. 10/9/1956
“’Pannonica’ is one of a series of ballads (including ‘Round Midnight,’ ‘Monk’s Mood,’ and ‘Ruby, My Dear’) in which fervent romanticism combines with Monkish astringency. After a full-blooded, rhapsodic Rollins, Monk enters on both piano and celeste, echoing one of Rollins’s phrases and then dueting with himself in a solo built around variations on his own theme, whose melody he alters through subtle rhythmic and harmonic displacements.” – David Rosenthal

Monk and Trane.
In 1957, John Coltrane took a break from the Miles Davis Quintet to kick his drug habit and to woodshed with Monk. “… [T]he recordings made by Monk’s band during this period show that [John Coltrane] was anything but overawed by his new employer. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find another Monk sideman who did so little to adapt to the idiosyncracies of the pianist’s music. On recordings such as ‘Trinkle Tinkle’ or ‘Nutty,’ Coltrane unleashes powerful solos that, rather than emulating Monk’s use of space or compositional style of improvisation as so many others did when playing with the pianist, reflect the saxophonist’s own emphatic, virtuosic style.” – Ted Gioia

Trinkle Tinkle. Thelonious Monk Quartet
(John Coltrane-ts, Thelonious Monk-p, Wilbur Ware-b, Shadow Wilson-d). From Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane. 7/1957

Nutty. Thelonious Monk Quartet
(John Coltrane-ts, Thelonious Monk-p, Wilbur Ware-b, Shadow Wilson-d). From Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane. 7/1957
“In the final analysis, this was an extraordinary ensemble, one of the most creative units of its day, not because Coltrane served as disciple to Monk, as is so often stated, but because these two masters of the jazz idiom met, for the most part, on equal terms. During their few months together, these two premier stylists—one espousing a music of pregnant pauses and lingering overtones, the other filling each measure to the fullest, to overflowing, in a music of delirious excess—called to mind the physicists’ assertion that the creative energy of the universe is founded, ultimately, on the attraction of opposites.” – Ted Gioia

After Monk – Herbie Nichols & Elmo Hope.
“As early as the mid-1950s, a few jazz pianists were paying close attention to Monk’s example. For players such as Herbie Nichols, Richard Twardzik, Randy Weston, Mal Waldron, and Elmo Hope, several elements of Monk’s playing proved especially influential… Nichols, … and Hope have each received far more recognition posthumously than during their abbreviated careers. [They] were dead before their mid-forties, leaving behind only a handful of recordings to testify to their potent reworkings of the jazz tradition.” – Ted Gioia

Herbie Nichols.
“Herbie Nichols, one of the most brilliant modern jazz composers and pianists of his day, made just three albums as a leader, with most of his working life spent playing in Dixieland bands. Nichols’s attack and the basic elements of his musical vocabulary show a great debt to Monk, but his performances are more driving, more densely packed. And in the place of Monk’s sly humor, they tend toward a brittle hardness, somber and remote, at times bordering on an academic otherworldliness. Nichols’s best recordings—‘The Third World,’ ‘2300 Skiddoo,’ ‘Blue Chopsticks,’ ‘Cro-Magnon Nights’—are powerful statements, totally free from cliché, and revealing a poised balance between form and content.” – Ted Gioia

“How forward-looking [Nichols] was as a composer may be judged by his use in ‘The Third World’ … of a chord progression that would still sound radical when John Coltrane experimented with it more than a decade later… The miracle of Nichols is his compositions never sound consciously ‘written’ but seem to emerge whole out of the nature of the piano itself. The playing is crisp and buoyant, and even alternative takes are worth hearing.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook.

The Third World. Herbie Nichols Trio
(Herbie Nichols-p, Al McKibbon-b, Art Blakey-d). From The Prophetic Herbie Nichols, Vol. 1. 5/6/1955

Cro-Magnon Nights. Herbie Nichols Trio
(Herbie Nichols-p, Al McKibbon-b, Art Blakey-d). From The Prophetic Herbie Nichols, Vol. 1. 5/6/1955

“…Nichols is often thought of as a kind of more marginal Monk. Why?…It’s perhaps that they were both mysterious, oddball back musicians playing with a black vernacular – Tin Pan Alley, Ellington, hymns, boogie-woogie – that they knew quite well but felt free to change. It was not a popular thing to do and something that they did with style.” – Ben Ratliff

Elmo Hope.
“Hope’s visionary style came to the fore on recordings made, as both a leader and sideman, in New York during the mid-1950s, but the revocation of his cabaret card due to drug problems limited his ability to build on these accomplishments. After relocating to California, Hope undertook sessions under his own name, as well as contributed greatly to the success of Harold Land’s classic recording The Fox. Like Monk, Hope found his music branded as “difficult,” and few listeners were willing to make the effort to probe its rich implications. He continued to work and record sporadically after his return to New York in early 1961 until his death six years later, but never gained a following commensurate with the virtues of his steely and multifaceted music.” – Ted Gioa

“Elmo managed to sound sufficiently different from both his main influences, Bud Powell (with whom he went to school) and Thelonious Monk, to retain a highly individual sound. His reputation as a composer is now surprisingly slight, but he had a strong gift for melody, enunciating themes very clearly, and was comfortable enough with classical and modern concert music to introduce elements of fugue and canon, though always with a firm blues underpinning… These Blue Note sessions are taut and well disciplined… Originals like ‘Freffie’ and ‘Hot Sauce’ come across well, and the sound stands up down the years. Like many of his piano generation, the work is only now being properly studied and appreciated.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Freffie. Elmo Hope Trio
(Elmo Hope-p, Percy Heath-b, Philly Joe Jones-d).From New Faces – New
Sounds. 6/18/1953

Hot Sauce. Elmo Hope Trio
(Elmo Hope-p, Percy Heath-b, Philly Joe Jones-d).From New Faces – New
Sounds. 6/18/1953

Saxophonist Johnny Griffin said (1989): “I used to hang out with Elmo and Monk at their houses, and I can tell you they both could play in any style: Tatum, Basie, Duke, Fats Waller, Hines. Elmo chose to play the way he did, like Monk chose to play the way he did. It wasn’t that he couldn’t do it any other way.”

While Monk, Hope and Nichols spent most of their careers in New York, there was a very diverse piano scene developing on the West Coast. In the next hour, we’ll listen to the widely divergent music of West Coast-based pianists Nat “King” Cole, Hampton Hawes and Dave Brubeck.

Recordings.
Herbie Nichols – The Complete Blue Note Recordings. Blue Note 8 59355
Thelonious Monk – Brilliant Corners. Riverside RLP 12-226
Thelonious Monk – Monk & Trane. Riverside REP 3214
Elmo Hope – Trio and Quintet. Blue Note 784438

Resources.
Giddins, Gary & DeVeaux, Scott. 2009. JAZZ. New York, NY. WW Norton & Company.
Chapter 13. Jazz Composition in the 1950s
Gioia, Ted. 2011. The History of Jazz. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 6. Modern Jazz.
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books.
Herbie Nichols – The Complete Blue Note Recordings
Thelonious Monk – Brilliant Corners
Elmo Hope – Trio and Quintet
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
Chapter 38. Herbie Nichols, The Art of Herbie Nichols (1955-1956)
Rosenthal, David. 1992. Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965. New York. Oxford University Press.

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