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One of the most influential figures in American music, Thelonious Monk developed his primarily self-taught talent as he revolutionized jazz music from the 1940s until the end of his life in 1982. The virtuosic-jazz pianist gave us an entirely new approach to improvising, including more dissonance and percussive bursts to bring his music to an innovative level. He is second to Duke Ellington as the most recorded jazz composer and one of only five jazz artists to be on the cover of Time magazine. Monk's success is largely attributable to his inventive and unorthodox piano methods, providing a new foundation for jazz music.
Thelonious was born on October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina although he and his family moved to New York City when he was four. His father would occasionally play the harmonica or piano as it allowed Thelonious to grow fonder of music. He began playing the trumpet but eventually gravitated to the piano by age nine and realized that piano playing fit him quite comfortably. After dropping out of high school, begin playing with a local Baptist church and found other entries into performing jazz in his late teens. In the early 1940s, he began playing at Minton’s Playhouse in New York City. This period of his life became crucial to his development of his originality as he grew towards “bebop” and his style was considered “hard-swinging.” Monk states that major influences during this time were Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and stride pianists.
Monk’s 1st studio recordings were with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet in 1944. Later, his first time with Blue Note Records as bandleader, he became much more creative in his compositional skills with many more original melodies. During the early-mid 1950s, Monk focused much more on composing, recording, and smaller theatrical shows. Building a reputation, Monk began to work closely with several big artists, such as Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis. However, Davis and Monk were known to have clashing creative differences. Davis claimed that Monk’s style was too difficult to play with, often having Monk tone down his accompaniment to a simpler “comping” style.
Later, Monk signed to Riverside Records and was not selling many albums as a household name despite gaining popularity with critics who embraced his unorthodox style. With Riverside, he recorded two jazz albums to increase image: “Thelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington” and “Brilliant Corners.” The latter of these contained all original music by Monk, who had Sonny Rollins help play tenor saxophone. A few tracks were so difficult that Rollins had multiple takes on the album because he could not stylistically perform to Monk’s intentions. This album also proved to be Monk’s 1st big popular success.
In 1963, he signed with Columbia Records, one of the largest record labels in America. This allowed Monk to become promoted with a large backing from a company, making his next album “Monk’s Dream” his biggest selling album of his lifetime. This prominently put Monk on the map, as he was then put on Time Magazine’s cover. As time went on, he had less time for composing and Columbia began to release many live performances as albums to build up listenership.
For the last part of his life, Monk fell off the radar and made much fewer appearances in public as his health steadily declined. On February 17, 1982, Thelonious Monk died of a stroke and was buried in Hartsdale, New York. There is a documentary of the pianist called, “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser” which was released just six years after his death. In the 1990s, Monk was posthumously awarded with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement and the Pulitzer Prize Special Citizen. Monk’s performance style gave jazz music the inventiveness that allowed jazz to continue its popular existence all over the world. Leading a very full life as a jazz performer and composer, Thelonious Monk remains, arguably, one the greatest jazz musicians of all time.
Live performance of "Blue Monk" in 1966