Thelonius Monk Remembered on the Anniversary of his Birth

Thelonious Monk performs in London in 1970. Photo: NPR/Getty.

Saturday on All Night Jazz, we featured music by the renowned jazz composer and pianist, Thelonius Monk, who was born on this date, October 10, 1917. WUSF’s Carson Rodriguez Bugarin has more.

Born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Thelonius Monk’s piano training began at a young age when his mother taught him to play several hymns. Her teaching would yield fruits when he began to tour with an evangelist as an organist at the age of 17.

In the 1940s, Monk became the house pianist at the club, Minton’s Playhouse in Manhattan.

It was here that Monk helped pioneer the bebop movement with musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and developed his signature, percussive style.

In the late ‘40s Blue Note Records founder Alfred Lion signed Monk to his label and recorded several timeless sides later released under the title of “The Genius of Modern Music.”

As Lion explained to producer Michael Cuscuna in 1985, “Monk was so fantastically original and his compositions were so strong and new that I just wanted to record everything he had. It was so fantastic I had to record it all.”

Although Monk’s music was not initially appreciated by audiences or critics nearly all of the tracks on the “Genius” have become jazz standards, recorded countless times by hundreds of musicians. Monk’s tune “’Round Midnight is considered to be the most covered composition in jazz.

Monk struggled in the early ‘50s. His Cabaret Card, required to play in any New York City clubs had been revoked. His music and career remained fairly unrecognized until two events changed his trajectory.

 

The Thelonious Monk album “Brilliant Corners,” was bankrolled by Baroness Pannonica de Konigswater a British-born member of the Rothschild dynasty.

 

The first was a patron: the Baroness Pannonica de Konigswater. Pannonica, or Nica as she was called, was a member of the Rothschild dynasty and a huge jazz fan. She had fled war torn Europe for New York in the 1940’s where she became well-known to many of the players on 52nd Street.

She often ferried musicians around town in her chauffeured Bentley. Charlie Parker actually died in her New York City apartment. It was Nica who helped Monk with his “Brilliant Corners” release in late 1956.

She paid for the studio and found a piano for Monk to work on. The recording, which also featured Sonny Rollins, became a critical success. It featured Monk compositions inspired by Nica such as “Pannonica” and “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are,” named for the Bolivar Hotel where the Baroness lived.

The two had a lifelong friendship. Monk retired to her home after he stopped performing.

The second event occurred a short while later in July of 1957, when Monk was booked to play at the Five Spot in the East Village alongside John Coltrane, who had recently been exiled from Miles Davis’ band for his heroin addiction.

 

An album of a never before released performance by Thelonius Monk came out in September, 2020. “Palo Alto,” was recorded at a concert at Palo Alto High School in 1968.

 

The two instantly connected as Coltrane’s immense skill challenged Monk to create more complex improvisations.

The pair’s work would be recorded and eventually released in the album, “Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane,” in October 1961.

Following Coltrane’s departure, Monk recruited saxophonist Charlie Rouse to his quartet and began a series of tours around the country. During this tour, Monk found little time to compose new music, leading the group to pull from the same compositions for their performances.

As a result, Monk’s concerts became monotonous in the eyes of some critics, with the quality and tone depending heavily on the mood of Monk and Rouse.

During these performances, Monk garnered the reputation that followed him the rest of his career, that of idiosyncrasy and eccentricity. Monk frequently abandoned the piano in the middle of a song, instead preferring to dance as the rest of his band continued to play. Monk later explained, “I get tired sitting down at the piano! That way I can dig the rhythm better.”

Fortunately, a record deal with Columbia Record in 1962 supplied much needed financial and personal stability and Monk began to produce more compositions. Monk’s music began to stand apart from that of his peers.

Monk’s popularity reached a natural crescendo in the mid-sixties as jazz music became more avant-garde with the rise of modern artists like John Coltrane and Miles Davis.

Yet while these masters pursued even more eclectic leanings than Monk, he chose to follow his own muse until his final concerts in 1976.

Earlier this year, 38 years after Monk’s death, a new recording was released called “Palo Alto.” The album features a never released performance recorded live at Palo Alto High School in California on Sunday, October 27, 1968.

The event had been organized Danny Scher, a 16-year-old junior, who asked Monk, his idol, to perform at his high school. Amazingly, Monk said yes. The school’s janitor volunteered to record the concert.

Scher, who would go on to become a well-known concert promoter, worked with Monk’s son T.S Monk, to restore and remaster the tapes, which sat in Scher’s attic for decades.

The album features some of Monk and Rouse’s most energetic and synchronous work. T.S. Monk hopes the album will spur a re-interest in his father’s groundbreaking music.

Despite his early critical and commercial struggles, Monk’s revolutionary compositions are today, the second-most-often recorded songs in jazz, behind only Duke Ellington.