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Thelonious Monk: Honoring a Piano Man Who Inspired Generations

William Gottlieb

Thelonious Sphere Monk.

Even his name was one of a kind. Before Monk came along, no one played piano like him. His elliptical approach to melody and often abrupt, percussive style created suspense and humor on the bandstand, and his sublime lyricism made for indelible standards with evocative names like “‘Round Midnight,” “Straight, No Chaser” and “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are.”

The singular jazz pianist, hailed as “the genius of modern music,” was born 100 years ago this October 17, but his centennial celebration already is in full swing, with tribute concerts and releases of rare archival recordings.

An underground figure in Harlem’s revolutionary bebop scene, which arose in the aftermath of World War II, Monk already was legendary before he died in 1982. Although his songs are difficult to master, they are now arguably as popular as Duke Ellington’s in the jazz repertoire, covered not only by generations of pianists, but by acts as diverse as the chamber group Kronos Quartet and the ‘70s pop guitarist Peter Frampton.

He’s even had a beer named after him, a Belgian style ale called “Brother Thelonious.”

"Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original"
"Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original" by Robin D.G. Kelley Free Press

“You can’t walk into a Starbucks without hearing Monk,” says Robin D.G. Kelley, a professor of American history at UCLA, and the author of “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original,” a definitive 2009 biography to be republished this month by Simon & Schuster in a new, centennial edition.

And yet, many people still don’t know what to make of Monk, whose spontaneous bandstand dances, cryptic silences and swank haberdashery fed unrealistic perceptions.

In his book, Kelley dispels the myths that came to define the musician’s public persona: “This kind of solitary, emotionally challenged, manic-depressive genius. The autodidact who lives in his head,” he said. “[But] the mythical Monk is still on life-support. People have an investment in the idea of someone whose music is so off the charts that it’s mystical. I understand why, if there’s ever a Monk movie, he will be crazy.”

Related: Young, Gifted & Black: Damien Sneed, Multifaceted Music Maestro

It is never wise to take Monk at face value, as Randy Weston learned.

The Brooklyn pianist, now 91, first heard Monk play with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, his favorite jazz artist, at a club on 52nd Street in the 1940s.

Weston’s first impression? “That he couldn’t play,” he said with a laugh. “He was playing some funny notes!. I said, ‘Man, what’s wrong with this guy?’ But I went back, and when I heard the two of them together it was just utter beauty.”

The Jazz Foundation of America Presents the 14th Annual 'A Great Night in Harlem' Gala Concert to Benefit Their Jazz Musicians Emergency Fund Saving Jazz, Blues and R & B....One Musician at a Time
Randy Weston performs at The Jazz Foundation of America Presents the 14th Annual 'A Great Night in Harlem' Gala Concert to Benefit Their Jazz Musicians Emergency Fund Saving Jazz, Blues and R & B....One Musician at a Time at The Apollo Theater on October 22, 2015 in New York City. Theo Wargo / Getty Images for The Jazz Foundation of America

Weston struck up a friendship with Monk, who invited him to his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. “I spent a few hours with him and asked a lot of questions. No answers, so I couldn’t leave the room. There was a picture of Billie Holliday in the middle of the ceiling, and he had the radio playing very, very low.”

Weston, who later recorded his own tribute, “Portraits of Monk,” returned a month or two later. “He played a few hours for me. From that point on, that was my man.”

Monk continues to inspire young musicians. Joey Alexander, a 13-year-old Indonesian piano prodigy, was drawn to the composer at age 6. “I love his harmonic approach, his sense of space, his rhythmic ideas,” said Alexander, who performs Friday and Saturday as part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Thelonious Monk Festival.

Although Monk standards such as “Epistrophy,” one of Alexander’s favorites, are challenging to play, they also offer rewards. “Monk always brings that sense of playfulness, and always brings that joy.”

Alexander discovered at an early age what Kelley wants to communicate about Monk. “He worked on an aesthetic,” the scholar said. “It was a product of really hard work. That’s such an important lesson for younger miusicians, or anyone coming to jazz for the first time who thinks that it’s music that comes only from your soul, or your skin color, as opposed to a mental process, a physical process.”

The 58th GRAMMY Awards - GRAMMY Pre-Telecast
Jazz pianist Joey Alexander performs onstage during the GRAMMY Pre-Telecast at The 58th GRAMMY Awards at Microsoft Theater on February 15, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Kelley’s biography won’t be the only Monk-related project this June, which also is Black Music Appreciation Month. Among other occasions is the “Monkathon,” a nine-day festival in Birmingham, England, where every single Monk composition – some 70 tunes – will be performed.

Later on, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Washington, D.C., will host the centennial edition of its annual competition on Oct. 10 – Monk’s birthday – focused this year on the piano, of course.

The two-disc CD set “Thelonious Monk: Les liaisons dangereuses 1960” releases June 16, featuring music recorded for the soundtrack of Roger Vadim’s film version of the 18th century French novel, transposed to modern times. The music, long out of print, features twin tenor horns – Charlie Rouse and Barney Wilen – along with bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor.

Related: At 13, Self-Taught Jazz Pianist Joey Alexander Is Returning to the Grammys

The sessions, recorded at the Nola Penthouse Sound Studios on West 57th Street, are yet another reminder of what has made Monk an enduring force, whose influence is much more than the songs he composed.

“Monk just really let it be known that you can paint your own picture,” said Matthew Shipp, 56, a prolific New York-based jazz pianist known for pushing the music’s form. “You can’t fake that either. Monk’s lexicon has not become wallpaper yet.”

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra brings the genius of Monk to life for "World of Monk." Watch the livestream at 8pm here.

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