Thelonious Monk

Blue Note: The blueprints. 1947-51.
Prestige: Unorthodoxy. 1952-4.
Riverside: House party starting. 1955-61.
Columbia: “I’m famous. Ain’t that a bitch?” 1962-8.
More Live Monk: Addenda.
Recommendations: some picks

Where to start with The Onliest? Monk is, for me, the consummate jazz artist. His piano playing was a unique mix of old roots (stride, blues) and futuristic physics. He wrote a portfolio of music that might make him the best small-band jazz composer ever. Of those tunes, one might complain that there aren’t more, but I think of something Scorcese said about Kubrick: one of his films is worth ten of anybody else’s. And if you put some of Monk’s top pieces on the table, like “Criss Cross”, “Ruby My Dear”, or “Round Midnight”, the analogy holds, I’d say.

If you just learn the melody, you haven’t learned the whole Monk piece. The chords underneath aren’t just for orthodox harmonic support; they are an inextricable part of the effect of the top line. Of course, any decent composer is aware of melodic and harmonic symbiosis, but Monk shoved chord changes (unusual ones at that) into many unexpected places, and to ignore them because of their novelty is to miss the essence of the work.

Monk not only modernized old school jazz but also helped create the new school in all those jam sessions at Minton’s. When bebop became the popular province of Dizzy and Bird, Monk put it aside for his own style. He pushed jazz into new harmonic complexity. He was an architect. A genius (and I rarely use that word). A one-time-only species. Where in the world could the crazy accents and voicings of “Evidence” come from? Or the outpourings of “Four In One” or “Trinkle Tinkle”? Or the pure beauty of “Ruby My Dear”? To say that Monk was a character isn’t just a reference to his strange behavior, aloof personality, or his penchant for crazy dances. The real character comes through in his work. Monk did more than write new tunes. He forged his own musical world.

One thing about Monk being in his own world is that he didn’t absorb outside developments and stuck stubbornly to form and swing. The standards he played were generally from the 1920s and '30s, and he very rarely bothered with any of his contemporaries’ compositions. He had no use for extraneous noises or improv, or even advanced group interplay. However, the music he did make is so utterly complete that I can’t hold anything he didn’t do against him.

Monk took some hits in his day for his strange piano style, although later listeners generally appreciate its uniqueness. He doesn’t have linear flow (not in extended portions, anyway), yet his virtuoso use of space and vertical shocks count as specialized technique. Certain later players could mimic his style, but at the end of the day, only one person in the world ever fully sounded like Monk, and that was the man himself.

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