October 10th, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina
February 17th, 1982 in Weehawken, New Jersey
Pianist Thelonious Monk spent much of his career unappreciated, often dismissed for his unconventional personality and playing style. He grew up in Manhattan, and combined the stride piano style with the burgeoning bebop approach, creating a distinctly quirky and percussive approach. Critics and audiences were slow to warm up to Monk’s music, but today he is regarded as one of the most important musicians in jazz.
Stride and Bebop:
Thelonious Monk began playing the piano as a boy in Manhattan, where he was largely self-taught. He played organ for church services, and accompanied the gospel choir. His love, however, was for the stride piano style, which blossomed in New York thanks to James P. Johnson
and Fats Waller
Monk got a chance to work up his jazz chops as the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. In the early 1940s, when Monk was a fixture on the scene at Minton’s, musicians who were in the process of developing bebop, such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Christian, frequented the club.
Monk’s playing was strongly influenced by stride, and the faster, more adventurous bebop
, but not enough to be classified as either one. In fact, his style is one of a kind. This made it difficult for him to achieve success early on, despite having recorded with tenor saxophone great Coleman Hawkins, and leading his own recordings on Blue Note Records.
Legal problems also hindered his career. In 1951, he was arrested alongside fellow pianist Bud Powell for possession of narcotics. Monk refused to testify against his friend, so the authorities confiscated his cabaret card, which allowed him to get gigs in New York. He was forced to work out of town, limiting his exposure. However, during this time he recorded with Miles Davis
, and befriended Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a member of the prominent Rothschild family, and also a jazz patron. Monk often relied on her for support, until the last days of his life.
It was in 1956 that Monk first developed a widespread reputation. He had signed with Riverside Records, a small label run by Orrin Keepnews, and recorded the album Brilliant Corners
. The album featured Sonny Rollins, and was met with critical and popular success. The next year, Monk was allowed to play in New York again, and engaged in a famous six-month residency at the Five Spot café with a quartet that included John Coltrane
. These performances went largely undocumented, but in 2005 the Library of Congress released what was thought to be a lost recording
of the group at Carnegie Hall in 1957.
Rise and Fall:
Because of his success on Riverside, in the early 1960s Monk was signed to Columbia Records, and was promoted extensively. In 1964 he was even featured in Time magazine. During these years he worked frequently with a group featuring tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. This marked the height of his career. By the 1970s he rarely performed or recorded; a drop off of the scene that is believed to be in part due to mental illness. In his last few decades, Monk exhibited bizarre behavior, sometimes pacing endlessly, or refusing to speak for long stretches.
Monk spent the last six years of his life as a guest in the home of Pannonica de Koenigswarter in New Jersey. He reportedly didn’t play piano during this time, and generally abstained from social interaction. Monk died of a stroke in 1982, leaving a legacy of unbending individuality. Today he is one of the most respected figures in jazz. His influence on contemporary pianists is broad, and his compositions, including “Blue Monk,” “Well You Needn’t,” “’Round Midnight,” and “Straight No Chaser,” are standards in the jazz repertoire.