On March 12, 1955, Charlie Parker collapsed in the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter’s Upper East Side apartment after a three-day booze binge. The improviser of superhuman poise was dead at thirty-four, eliciting solemn observance from musicians and fans, particularly those who’d been hanging around Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem where, in the early 1940s, a new kind of music called bebop had been invented. “Bird has disintegrated into pure sound!” is said to have been overheard somewhere near the Five Spot on Cooper Square, the Beat tavern where much bad poetry was recited, and where some great musicians nightly turned the style that came out of Harlem into ever more febrile and kinked contortions. Part of the Bird enigma was the impossible fusion of musical angel and reptilian addict, a miraculously graceful artist who might steal your horn and pawn it for smack.
Four months after Bird’s death, his one-time personal assistant Miles Davis seduced everyone at the Newport Jazz Festival, performing a tune called “Round Midnight,” written by someone who had been part of the Minton’s scene but was still an underground figure: Thelonious Monk, who had only a handful of records under his belt and, then approaching forty, was still playing on other people’s dates. Indeed, he was the pianist behind Miles for the Newport performance, which would help the younger musician sign with Columbia records, putting him on the road to stardom. An oft-told anecdote has the two sharing a car back to New York. “You weren’t playing the tune right,” Monk says, to which Miles replies that he is just jealous, at which point Monk orders the car to pull over and takes the ferry to the city alone.
The Newport set came about midway through Monk’s career, which was long by the standards of jazz. Over three decades he played on more than a hundred records, collaborating with artists as different as Sonny Rollins and Gerry Mulligan, John Coltrane and Clark Terry, Art Blakey and Oliver Nelson. From the first, he was revered by fellow musicians, even those who would later do away with harmony and structure, aspiring toward a kind of “free” jazz. “Of all the bop greats Monk’s influence seems second now only to that of Charlie Parker,” Amiri Baraka wrote in 1967. Monk was also a committed teacher, including to Rollins and Coltrane, who both spent mornings practicing at his tiny apartment on West Sixty-Third.
Commercial success, however, had a way of eluding Monk. His career began with sporadic recordings on the Blue Note and Prestige labels, made through the 1940s and 1950s, none of which sold well. Already struggling to support his family, his financial troubles worsened in 1951 when he was arrested—with his friend, the great bebop pianist Bud Powell—on drug charges and was left without his cabaret card for a half dozen years, preventing him from playing in nightclubs. Switching to the Riverside label in 1955, he found new momentum but only reached a wide public in 1962, when he was signed by Columbia records, joining a roster that included Miles Davis and Charles Mingus. After that, his profile dramatically grew; two years later he even appeared on the cover of Time. By his death in 1982, he had become a respectable pillar of the music’s evolution, as seen in Ken Burns’s 2001 PBS documentary Jazz. But neither a cult reputation as a pioneer of bebop nor American canonization quite does justice to Monk, who was simply one of the most imaginative composers of the twentieth century, a judgment that in my view does not require the qualifiers “jazz” or “American.”
What made Monk a great composer was his way of putting a tune together, and the stamp he put on pianism—his unique approach to chord voicing, phrasing and accent—was inseparable from his being a great thinker in song form. Like his hero Duke Ellington, he had a gift for reconciling musical experiment with the immediacy of pop, finding freedom in the constraints of a verse-chorus-bridge grammar that might otherwise default to clichés. Inventing a set of private aesthetic laws, he worked out their possibilities over the course of his career with admirable stubbornness and conviction. If the axioms were laid down at Blue Note (1947–1952), revised here and there at Prestige (1952–1954), the Riverside years (1955–1961), which I’ll zoom in on in what follows, showed what kinds of proofs could be argued from them.
Monk was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in 1917 in a home where he might have heard some live music: his father could bang out ragtime on the piano as well as play harmonica, as Robin Kelly notes in his staggeringly thorough biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2010)—from which this essay draws most of its factual information. The family relocated to New York City in 1922, moving into Phipps housing in the San Juan Hill neighborhood at West Sixty-Third Street where, at age six, Monk began taking piano lessons from a neighbor. Jazz was then dominated by swing bands like Duke’s, Count Basie’s, and Fletcher Henderson’s, and star soloists like Lester Young, Ben Webster, Louis Armstrong, and Benny Goodman. Piano was the stride style of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, with Art Tatum at its dazzling apex. It was from that kind of playing that Monk developed a serious interest in the instrument. Dropping out of Stuyvesant High (where he had excelled in math), he honed his chops on the road, playing with a traveling evangelist for two years.
He had a gift for reconciling musical experiment with the immediacy of pop.
How and when began the private alchemy by which the stride style was given a modernist acid bath would be hard to pinpoint. By the time he was sitting in with Coleman Hawkins in 1944, however, Monk was comping so off the grid that musicians were squinting their eyes at him. It is sometimes said that he helped “invent” bebop, which is true to the extent that he played at Minton’s in the early 1940s with several of the genre’s pioneers—Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, drummer Kenny Clarke—and insofar as his playing mostly broke with swing-era mannerisms. But the differences between him and other bebop virtuosos are more striking than the continuities. For all their blistering speed and invention, the likes of Bud, Bird, and Diz tended not to sing, rather letting their formidable chops do the talking. By contrast, Monk built up ideas from material implicit in the tune, always soloing with the melody in mind. This comes through vividly in his takes on standards like “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” or “Everything Happens to Me,” or “I’ve Got It Bad,” where each chord seems deliberated over, as if Monk is pausing to choose an expressive coloring that will best convey the melody.
At the same time, Monk had an original sound marked by angular phrasing, atypical chord voicings, and his beloved Tatum-ish glissandos. But it was also his tone, odd as that sounds in the case of an instrument as fixed in its design as the piano. Fingers rigidly horizontal over the keys, he played with both a bell-like purity and a harsh, percussive attack. Many initially heard sloppiness, mistakes, even incompetence. (Philip Larkin later called him an “elephant at the keyboard.”) Like the philistine who asserts that Dylan “can’t sing,” hearing Monk as a “bad” pianist misses something so fundamental you don’t know where to begin.
The early reception of Monk’s music was usually accompanied, and occasionally overshadowed, by his public image as a “weirdo.” Clichés repurposed by journalists (“The High Priest of Bop”), his own sartorial affectations (bamboo framed glasses, berets, and then more exotic head gear), and a brusque, at times irritable style of communication as a bandleader (when the twenty-two-year-old Sahib Shihab looked at the jagged melody of “Who Knows” during a 1947 session and said it was too difficult, Monk replied: “You a musician? You got a union card? Play it.”)—all this blurred into an aura of mere eccentricity, otherworldly disconnection from reality, becoming a form of kitsch. The myth was reinforced by Monk’s propensity for Zen-like aphorisms about musical aesthetics, such as the claim that the “inside of the tune is the part that makes the outside sound good.” By this he seems to have meant that the B section (the inside) casts back over the A section, revealing the song’s shape as it unfolds in time. Think of not knowing that a tunnel fans out and widens (until you get there) or of journeying through a circle and slowly discovering it is a sphere. Another Monkism was the importance of swinging at slow tempos, which made the push against the metronome more stretched and exaggerated, and so more expressive, maybe even more musical.
After a piece in Down Beat about the “Genius of Bop” caught the attention of the Blue Note label’s cofounder Alfred Lion, he and his wife Lorraine Gordon were invited (by its author William Gottlieb) over to Monk’s apartment, where they sat with their feet up on the bed while he played with his back to them. He was soon offered a contract with Blue Note, on which he recorded multiple dates—first in 1947, again in the early 1950s—of mostly original material, all of which would come out as The Genius of Modern Music Volume 1 and 2 in 1951 and 1952. “Criss Cross,” an up-tempo, asymmetric tune from those first dates, is a good example of his compositional approach. The opening section is studded with obstacles, specifically an eighth rest and a quarter rest on either side of an A in the third measure, which throws off what the ear expects as the completion of the phrase. (For some reason, on a later recording of the tune for the Columbia LP Criss Cross, he removed that first rest, giving it a much straighter feel.) That section is then contrasted with a second idea, chromatically descending tones ping-ponging against a repeated G, a figure which, doubled in unison with Milt Jackson’s vibraphone, sounds like someone laughing.
The jazz historian and composer Gunther Schuller thought “Criss Cross” was exemplary of Monk’s musical language, calling it an abstract idea. That seems right enough, though Schuller also insisted that “Criss Cross” wasn’t technically a “song,” which is wrong. The Stravinsky-like placement of rests to create off-kilter accents, broken phrasing that works against the bar lines, and the general feeling of music assembled as if it were a Calder mobile—none of this prevents “Criss Cross” from coming off with the fizz of a pop single. And the same is true of other ostensibly “abstract” pieces from The Genius of Modern Music, like “Off Minor,” “Evidence,” or “Misterioso,” with its staggered major 6s rising and falling like a Slinky. These tunes are arresting not for their virtuosity but for their architecture and shape—how their inside expresses the outside and vice versa, to use Monk’s wonderfully accurate analogy. And this is not to mention ballads like “Round Midnight,” “Ask Me Now,” and “Ruby, My Dear,” which Ira Gitler described in his liner notes as conveying “sentiment without sentimentality.”
After the Blue Note records sold dismally, Monk moved in 1952 to Bob Weinstock’s Prestige records for a three-year contract, rearranging and rerecording a batch of songs he’d been playing for years. The obviously out-of-tune piano on the first Prestige disc ought to give a sense of the recording budget for these dates. One of them, plagued with mishaps and misunderstandings, features a take of “Friday the 13th” that needed to be coached into overtime from the control room, chugging on over its gloomy riff for ten and a half minutes. Though sales were again not great, musicians were starting to pay attention, as was Orrin Keepnews—an industrious Columbia undergraduate who helped edit the jazz newsletter The Record Changer and had befriended Monk years earlier. Keepnews eventually lent Monk the $108 and change to get Prestige to end the contract and signed him to his own new venture, Riverside Records.
The suggestion that Monk devote his Riverside debut to a set of Duke Ellington tunes was Keepnews’s idea. It stemmed from his sense, as he put it in the notes for the sleeve of Thelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington (1956), that it might be “helpful to know the precise structural and melodic starting point of a musician’s improvisations.” In other words, why not apply Monk’s slightly bent melodic imagination to songs everybody already knows? It proved to be an inspired idea. Right out of the gate, “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” merges Monk’s world with Duke’s, its stuttering, telegraphic one-note intro an apparent echo of “Thelonious” from the Blue Note sessions. On “Solitude,” he finds piano shades that seem to get at Duke’s orchestrations, along with a wide-open stride style swinging under the right-hand melodies. Throughout, he takes up the material in an easy, graceful, somehow fundamentally singing approach. The same could be said for the covers on the second Riverside release, The Unique Thelonious Monk (1956), on which, to take one example, Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You” is given a halting half-stride solo treatment that feels both warm and anxious.
The third Riverside LP leaves the world of cover versions for original compositions arranged for a band that included Sonny Rollins and Max Roach. Kelley describes how the musicians had a tough time getting a good take of the title track, “Brilliant Corners,” because of its huge intervallic leaps and tempo shifts. Steadfast in his conviction that music should be learned by ear, Monk would not share the charts, which exacerbated the problem. Left with twenty-five takes and no master, Keepnews cut them together with a razor blade for the version that’s on the record, a feat of studio wonkery rare for the period, especially in jazz. The album’s other masterpiece, “Pannonica,” was named for Monk’s close friend and sometime caretaker, financial backer, and nurse—the Baroness in whose apartment Bird had died. It is a good example of “swinging at slow tempo,” its tipsy melody turning around like a revolving oval. There happened to be a celeste in the Reeves studio that day, prompting Monk to use it for the first go round on “Pannonica,” which adds a plunky lullaby sheen to the arrangement.
Whitney Balliett, who wrote about jazz for The New Yorker for almost fifty years, said of Monk that “his improvisations were molten Monk compositions and his compositions were frozen Monk improvisations.” A particularly extravagant instance of that thought is the outtake of “Round Midnight,” recorded as part of the Thelonious Himself (1957) sessions and included on the Complete Monk on Riverside (1986) box set. Over the course of a glorious, open, twenty-two-minute take, Monk comes at the tune’s ideas from different angles, circling back elliptically to repeat whole sections, playing phrases out of order, like he’s turning an object around slowly and letting the light hit it in different spots. One begins to think of the track less as a discrete composition and more as an atmosphere, a distributed range of musical possibilities organized around the incomparable melody, which holds the pieces together like a recurring dream.
Fingers rigidly horizontal over the piano keys, he played with both a bell-like purity and a harsh, percussive attack.
There was a good deal of gigging at the time, and Keepnews was conscientious about hauling mics around for possible releases. Sometimes live settings can bring out Monk’s rhythmic extremism more vividly than on record, as with a version of “Evidence,” recorded at the Five Spot in the summer of 1958. By treating the subdivisions of the bar as a kind of random number generator—playing on the and of 1, then on the 1 of the next bar, then the and of 3, then on 2 and so on—Monk creates an effect almost of meterlessness, a pointillist articulation at once spacey and tense, concluding on an F7 figure that, with its comically pasted-on feeling, suggests the whole thing is a prank. Of course, it is not a prank, and the tune is anything but meterless. Monk is being excessively careful with time, and the band is fussily counting while somehow swinging extra hard through it all. Misterioso, another Riverside live release, captures the quartet on a different night at the Five Spot that year, with Monk taking a solo on “Bye-Ya” that turns the melody into a series of splashy clusters.
Monk’s arranging had always suggested that his work might be interestingly set for a big band, an experiment that first happened in composer Hall Overton’s Sixth Avenue loft. These rehearsals initially took place with the two of them seated at a piano, going through the charts and discussing arrangements, after which a ten-piece band was assembled and a concert booked. The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall (1959) reveals a band not always sure of what to do with Monk’s music, but which at times shows what could be done. “Little Rootie Tootie,” features dissonant piano triplets working against bass-trumpet-alto unison lines; contrastive colors that add a new dimension to the earlier Prestige recording of the tune. On that night, he also played through one of his purest abstract compositions, “Crespuscule With Nellie,” which is dedicated to his infinitely patient best friend and wife, and somehow conveys the ups and downs of life, the surprises, and jolts, and the recurring tenderness of coming home to a family.
If asked to identify a single tune that best encapsulates Monk’s unique approach to composition, I would consider “Played Twice” from 5 by Monk by 5 (1959). It opens with three whacks on an open hi hat, then a figure enters suggesting the key of Db, followed by the band, which comes in a half step down, in C. Has a key change occurred two seconds in? In fact, it’s less a key change than a melody so strangely shaped it suggests modulation, and which soon moves from that apparent home base of C to a major 7 figure that, playing on another half step (between C and B), again lures us with chromaticism. Yet by the next phrase, a measure later, we’re back to Db! Once the shock wears off, you go look at the chart, which reveals an appealing mirror structure whereby half step chord voicings are reflected in half step moves in the melody, which are in turn somehow also reflected in how one section shifts to the next. It shouldn’t make any sense, but it does. It is also hummable and kind of rocks.
By 1962, Monk was ready to leave Riverside after a buildup of distrust toward Keepnews and some evidence of shady royalty handling and bookkeeping practices. Getting wind of this, a producer at Columbia records, Teo Macero, immediately shot off a note to the label administration, which offered Monk a deal with more money in advances than he’d ever seen. The records got slicker, the stereo more luxuriantly separated, the rooms (like the Thirtieth Street “church” where Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations and West Side Story, among others, were recorded) richer and bigger. The sound capture of the piano on the Columbia dates is like a gleaming Cadillac—and to overextend the analogy, on Riverside it’s a Honda Prelude, on Prestige a jalopy, and on Blue Note a Model-T (in good condition). But those fat advances have to be paid back, which necessitated some “hit-making.” It is likely that the financial pressure led to wrongheaded strategies, including some truly dismal canned “rock” composed by Macero.
A late Columbia studio LP Underground featured a cover depicting Monk sequestered in a bunker among strangely militarized paraphernalia—hand grenades, an automatic rifle, a Nazi officer held as prisoner, a TNT detonator of the sort Wile E. Coyote might order from the Acme Corporation—as well as a cow, empty wine and whiskey bottles, and “Vive la France” painted on the wall. The whole thing is super-confused, as if Columbia thought airbrushed Black power optics might be combined with a reboot of the “weirdo” brand to jump start sales. In any case, Monk did not fulfill the Columbia contract, as his occasional spells of bipolar catatonia, for which he had been misdiagnosed (first Thorazine for “depression” then electroshock for “schizophrenia”) gradually ceased to be episodes, becoming a general state of withdrawal. He slid deeper into silence, avoiding the piano, spending most of his time in New Jersey at the Baroness Pannonica’s house with her and her hundreds of cats. Many mornings he got fully dressed and then spent all day in bed.
In Monk’s Wake
A mark of Monk’s originality is the way others have found ways to elaborate upon it. Steve Lacy, Don Pullen, Anthony Braxton, and Abdullah Ibrahim, to name a few, all cut Monk records that are also extensions of their own aesthetic. Distinguished pianists from the next generation—Stanley Cowell, Marcus Roberts, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba come to mind—have taken up his quirks of keyboard phrasing in a sense perhaps comparable to the way Monk mashed up Johnson and Waller and Tatum. Terry Adams of NRBQ made a record of Monk covers that shows how amenable his music is to rhythm-and-blues combos of a sort that aren’t too far from rock-and-roll.
Taking all the humble nonlinguistic bones of song, he bent them toward his own specific needs and vision.
But Monk’s wholly original songwriting is his most lasting legacy. Taking intro, verse, refrain, bridge, coda, and “hook”—all the humble nonlinguistic bones of song—he bent them toward his own specific needs and vision. In this sense, he becomes part of a broader renaissance of American song in the second half of the twentieth century. We think of how Brian Wilson changed the concept of arrangement by approaching the multitrack studio as a set of timbral and dynamic possibilities, of how Dylan made vocal phrasing itself a medium of invention, of Frank Zappa’s whiplash edits between doo-wop and serialism, of Laura Nyro’s run-on sentence melodies, of Joni Mitchell’s way of thinking in open tunings, of Steely Dan spiking FM radio with queasily expanded chords and harmonies—and these last two certainly know their Monk.
If it seems a stretch to treat such examples as Monk-adjacent, that’s because there’s a tendency to think of songs as readymade schemas designed either to deliver a sing-along chorus or to reinforce insipid genre clichés. But a song is an infinitely elastic form. If approached the right way, its rules invite one to be more imaginative, its constraints give one more freedom—an understanding of freedom apparently preferable to Monk, who referred to “free jazz” as “getting rid of structure and simply piling a lot of notes one on top of the other.” While the seventy or so originals Monk wrote and recorded in his lifetime form a planet with its own laws and atmosphere, they are also in constant conversation with a tradition of song as a tightly rule-bound medium. When Monk said simply “jazz is freedom,” he might have been referring to his own strikingly original way of thinking and working in song form.