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Self-liberation Efforts of a Genius:
Thelonious Monk

Blog
Self-liberation Efforts of a Genius: Thelonious Monk

17.11.2017

Text: Haluk Damar

Illustration: Saydan Akşit

Translation: Yetkin Nural

“His melodies were beautiful, his cords were unusual, his colors, his rhythmic sets and the spiritual feeling in his music carried you away.” - Randy Weston

To understand Thelonious Monk, one of the most important pianists of jazz history, we should pay attention to two important details from his early years. First is New York City itself and second is Minton’s Playhouse club in Manhattan where jazz’s bebop genre emerged.

Thelonious Monk moved to Spanish and African-American neighborhood San Juan Hill when he was three years old. It is possible to imagine this neighborhood as an open air conservatory because all the talent that came out of this place shaped jazz history.  The residents of San Juan Hill were all instrumentalists and it was expected from younger generations to keep up this tradition. Since there weren’t many playgrounds for kids back in 1920’s anyway, Monk took part in various orchestras from an early age as well. His sister was playing the piano, his older brother was playing the violin and he himself was playing the trumpet. It is safe to say that these early engagements with music played an important role of Monk’s musical development since this future legend started to create his signature style in his childhood years.

“He epitomizes what a jazz musician supposed to be. He has a style, which is instantly identifiable. It's a very personal approach to jazz.” -Billy Taylor

“Monk is of the few people who really stuck to their guns and got he wanted out of what he wanted to do. Monk went to period of not making it but he still was Monk. When he made it, he still was Monk.” - Barry Harris

During the early 40’s, Thelonious Monk started to play the piano at Minton’s Playhouse, the club where bebop genre of jazz was perfected. Here, Monk got the chance to play with legendary names such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Kenny Clarke and Charlie Christian.  The owner of the Minton’s Playhouse, Charles Minton, was a musician and businessman known for his contributions to jazz during 30’s. He collected various financially challenged jazz musicians under his club’s roof and created a musical hub that gave birth to a new genre and launched the careers of many legendary names. One of the highlights of Minton’s Playhouse was the musicians’ themed ‘duellos’, in which names such as Roy Eldridge. Ben Webster, Lester Young, Hot Lips Page were challenging each other. The story of Dizzy Gillespie challenging his mentor Roy Eldridge and - after hours of playing - winning the duello is one of the best stories of jazz history.

It is natural for a genius to shine in such an environment. And as I mentioned before, it was obvious from the very beginning that Thelonious Monk was a genius. But the real challenge for Monk was to deliver the music in his mind to his audiences. Monk realized that the only way to do this was to create non-stop. In the 40’s the melodies played in clubs were being used in albums without giving any credits anyway. The reason why Monk wanted to create all the time was not just only about feeling comfortable doing so, but it was also a defense mechanism. Under the guidance of this creative mindset, he did his first recording session with Coleman Hawkins Quartet in 1944. Hawkins was one of the first names who saw the genius in Monk and never withheld his support. Monk’s first record as a bandleader came later when he recorded for Blue Note in 1947. This recording was built on a purely improvisational technic.

All of Monk’s recordings were based on his live performance experiences in various clubs. That changed after an incident that occurred in 1951 August. While Monk was driving with Budd Powell, the New York police decided to search the car and found some illegal substances, which were believed to belong to Powell. Since Monk refused to testify against his close friend, the NYPD cancelled his cabaret license. This resulted in Monk being banished from New York clubs between 1949 and 1954, spending the early 50’s recording and playing at clubs out of town. After his contract with Blue Note ended in 1952, Monk switched to another legendary record label, Prestige Records. Here he recorded jazz classics with Sonny Rollins, Max Roach and Art Blakey.

Monk’s return to New York nightlife was absolutely magnificent. When his cabaret license was renewed in 1957, Monk started to play with John Coltrane at East Village. Wilbur Ware at the bass and Shadow Wilson at the drums accompanied Monk and Coltrane. The live music of this quartet has become to known as uniquely legendary. Unfortunately since Monk and Coltrane were working with different record labels at the time, very few of these live sessions were recorded.

Until 1962, Thelonious Monk was known with his live performances rather than his recordings. When he joined Columbia Records in 1962, this situation got reversed. Teo Macero, hands down the most important producer of jazz history, was a part of Columbia Records team at the time. Macero was the producer of geniuses like Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Dave Brubeck. And it didn’t take much for Monk to be captivated by Macero as well. During 1963, Monk recorded Monk’s Dream album with John Ore at the bass, Frankie Dunlop at the drums and Macero as the producer. Monk’s Dream became not only the best selling album of Monk’s career but also the recording that gave Monk the fame he deserved.

“Monk is the absolute opposite of Miles Davis.” -John Coltrane.

Thelonious Monk is one of the rare figures of jazz that is hard to understand but well worth the effort. He never became political, never took part in a musical project that he didn’t want. As a musician who never lost sight of his own vision, Monk became a legend with his uncompromising creativity.

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