Jazz at 100 Hour 28: The Genius of Modern Music – Thelonious Monk on Blue Note

In 1940, Minton’s Playhouse on West 118th Street hired drummer Kenny Clarke as a bandleader. For the house band, Clarke hired trumpeter Joe Guy, bassist Nick Fenton, and an eccentric pianist named Thelonious Monk. Although Monk recorded with Coleman Hawkins in 1944, he didn’t record with his own group until 1947. Despite these kind of gaps that occur throughout his discography, he is competitive with Duke Ellington for the most recorded composer in jazz. The Blue Note recordings of 1947 – 1952 include many of the most recognized of his compositions.

“…Thelonious Monk… conducted his first record session at thirty (1947), organized his first working band at forty (1957), and dropped from sight at about fifty-five (1972). Although a small coterie of musicians (notably Coleman Hawkins, Mary Lou Williams, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell) esteemed him from the beginning, he labored in solitude for much of his most creative period. His records were ignored, his compositions pilfered, his instrumental technique patronized, his personal style ridiculed. Yet no voice in American music was more autonomous and secure than Monk’s, and no voice in jazz relied more exclusively on jazz itself for its grammar and vision.” – Gary Giddens

The First Session.
“A product of Monk’s first session as a leader, ‘Thelonious’ is considered his first masterpiece, a work that shuns the usual theme-and-variations format of bop and shows off his compositional ingenuity and fierce independence. In 1947, a Billboard reviewer called it a ‘controversial jazz disking worked out on a one note riff’. But that repeated note, a B-flat (sometimes doubled as a B-flat octave), is a deceptively simple front for the descending chromatic chords that shadow this thirty-six bar variant on the AABA song… In ‘Thelonious,’ the three wind instruments are used to voice the chords, and the only soloists are piano and, briefly, drums. The result is a kind of piano concerto, incorporating various elements of jazz history from stride to bop.” – Gary Giddens & Scott DeVeaux

Thelonious. Thelonious Monk Sextet
(Idrees Sulieman-tp, Danny Quebec West-as, Billy Smith-ts, Thelonious Monk-p, Gene Ramey-b, Art Blakey-d). 10/15/1947. (Norton Jazz Recordings)

The Second Session.
Monk’s second session nine days later was a legendary mix of reworked popular songs and startling new compositions. “In this piano trio setting, he adopts an even wider range of mannerisms—and not just his futuristic techniques, but snippets of older jazz styles as well. On the alternate take of ‘Nice Work if You Can Get It,’ a remnant from Monk’s Minton’s days still in his repertoire, he slips in several unexpected bars of stride piano. On ‘Ruby, My Dear’ he provides two bars of a figured bass that hint at the left-hand patterns of boogie-woogie. Perhaps Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons were on his mind— after all, they were favorites with Blue Note head Alfred Lion—because on ‘Well, You Needn’t’ Monk again adopts elements of boogie-woogie, this time in his right-hand block chords. But all these ingredients—whether old or new, borrowed or blue— manage somehow to cohere. The pianist’s personal signature is so strong that everything he touches turns, if not to gold, at least to Monk.” – Ted Gioia

Nice Work if You Can Get It (alternate). Thelonious Monk Trio
(Thelonious Monk-p, Gene Ramey-b, Art Blakey-d). 10/24/1947.

Ruby My Dear. Thelonious Monk Trio
(Thelonious Monk-p, Gene Ramey-b, Art Blakey-d). 10/24/1947.

Well, You Needn’t. Thelonious Monk Trio
(Thelonious Monk-p, Gene Ramey-b, Art Blakey-d). 10/24/1947.

Off Minor. Thelonious Monk Trio
(Thelonious Monk-p, Gene Ramey-b, Art Blakey-d). 10/24/1947.

Standards.
While Monk recorded primarily music of his own composition, he has several standards that he returned to throughout his career, played with such originality that they became an extension of his work. “April in Paris’, for example he would record again in the 1950s and in the 1960s and live recordings show it in his stage repertoire. Listen for drummer Art Blakey. “Blakey, of course, requires more than parenthetical mention as one of Monk’s finest collaborators. You can almost hear him hearing the pianist, so deftly and emphatically does he shift dynamics, bearing down when appropriate, floating the rhythm with unfaltering exactness.” – Gary Giddens

April in Paris. Thelonious Monk Trio
(Thelonious Monk-p, Gene Ramey-b, Art Blakey-d). 10/24/1947.

The Third Session.
Monk’s third session for Blue Note, this time with a quintet, includes another set of original compositions that will become standards, including Round Midnight, already recorded by Cootie Williams (1944) and Dizzy Gillespie (1946).

In Walked Bud. Thelonious Monk Quintet
(George Taitt-tp, Sahib Shihab-as, Thelonious Monk-p, Bob Paige-b, Art Blakey-d). 11/21/1947.

Monk’s Mood. Thelonious Monk Quintet
(George Taitt-tp, Sahib Shihab-as, Thelonious Monk-p, Bob Paige-b, Art Blakey-d). 11/21/1947.

Round Midnight. Thelonious Monk Quintet
(George Taitt-tp, Sahib Shihab-as, Thelonious Monk-p, Bob Paige-b, Art Blakey-d). 11/21/1947.

Monk and Milt Jackson.
“[T]he July 2, 1948, session, in which Monk plays cat and mouse with vibraphonist Milt Jackson, stood out as the most complete statement to date of his unorthodox musical values.” – Ted Gioia

Evidence. Thelonious Monk Quartet
(Milt Jackson-vib, Thelonious Monk-p, John Simmons-b, Shadow Wilson-d). 7/2/1948. (Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz)

Misterioso. Thelonious Monk Quartet
(Milt Jackson-vib, Thelonious Monk-p, John Simmons-b, Shadow Wilson-d). 7/2/1948. (Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz)

Epistrophy. Thelonious Monk Quartet
(Milt Jackson-vib, Thelonious Monk-p, John Simmons-b, Shadow Wilson-d). 7/2/1948.

I Mean You. Thelonious Monk Quartet
(Milt Jackson-vib, Thelonious Monk-p, John Simmons-b, Shadow Wilson-d). 7/2/1948.

“[The Blue Note] recordings. Made with trio, quintet and sextet, are small-group jazz that would forever sound new. Monk was already known among musicians; he had written ‘Epistrophy’ and ‘Round Midnight,’ both recorded by Cootie Williams. Listen to ‘Thelonious,’ with its contrary-motion horn harmonies in the head and two stunning choruses of piano soloing. They weren’t stunning for their smoothness: Monk was inventing a new kind of urbanity, one that challenged his audiences’ assumptions by making them think he was playing one unconscionable error after another.” – Ben Ratliff

Monk, Diz and Bird.
While it would be three years before Monk recorded under his own name again, in the interim, in June of 1950, he recorded for the only time with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in the Diz and Bird session for Norman Granz, featuring mostly Charlie Parker originals.

Bloomdido. Charlie Parker – Dizzy Gillespie Quintet
(Dizzy Gillespie-tp, Charlie Parker-as, Thelonious Monk-p, Curly Russell-b, Buddy Rich-d). From Diz and Bird. 6/6/1950.

Relaxin’ With Lee. Charlie Parker – Dizzy Gillespie Quintet
(Dizzy Gillespie-tp, Charlie Parker-as, Thelonious Monk-p, Curly Russell-b, Buddy Rich-d). From Diz and Bird. 6/6/1950.

Throughout Jazz at 100, we will return to the music of Thelonious Monk from time to time. In the next hour, we will introduce the recordings of pianist/composer Tadd Dameron and his frequent (but short-lived) collaborator Fats Navarro, the next great bebop trumpeter after Dizzy Gillespie. We will also hear from two of the greatest and longest-lived bebop soloists, Bird’s rival – alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt who recorded until 1982 and the first significant bebop trombonist JJ Johnson, who was active in music until 1996.

Recordings.
The Norton Jazz Recordings – 4 Compact Discs for use with JAZZ by Scott DeVeaux and Gary Giddens. W.W. Norton 933796.
Smithsonian Collection of Jazz Piano. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 0391.
Thelonious Monk – Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1. Blue Note 32137.
Thelonious Monk – Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 2. Blue Note 32138.
Dizzy Gillespie & Charlie Parker – Diz and Bird. Verve MGV 8006

Resources.
Kelley, Robin D.G. 2009. Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. New York. Free Press – A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Kirchner, Bill (editor). 2000. The Oxford Companion To Jazz. New York, NY. The Oxford University Press
“Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus” by Brian Priestly
Giddens, Gary & DeVeaux, Scott. 2009. JAZZ. New York, NY. WW Norton & Company.
Chapter 13. Jazz Compositions in the 1950s
Giddens, Gary. 1998. Visions of Jazz: The First Century. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 22. Thelonious Monk (Rhythm-a-ning)
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.
Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1
Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 2
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
Chapter 27. Thelonious Monk: Genius of Modern Music, Volume 1 (1947)

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