Thelonious Monk Would Be 90

A dapper Monk chills in 1961 Monk was born 90 years ago today in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, a Piedmont town where Jack Kerouac lived intermittently in the 1950s. NPR observes the occasion with an exploration of Monk’s Southern roots, making much of train sounds in his tunes and claiming that you don’t hear that on W. 63rd Street in Manhattan. Well, maybe. NPR also reprises Thelonious Himself, a radio documentary in its Jazz Profiles series. You can listen to the entire 54-minute profile as a web stream or free download. Thelonious Himself contradicts the Rocky Mount story by noting that Monk grew up in New York in the heydey of stride piano. The web text accompanying Thelonious Himself is a worthy profile itself:

When you hear his name, you can expect to hear some of the most original and challenging music of the 20th century. Whether it’s his dissonant chords or his uncanny sense of space and syncopation, pianist and composer Thelonious Monk’s sound is easily recognizable. He left behind a legacy that has had a lasting influence on modern music and fellow musicians.

Born Oct. 10, 1917, Monk grew up in Manhattan in the ’20s and ’30s, with great stride pianists such as James P. Johnson, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington within earshot. Monk loved stride piano because it allowed him to infuse his playing with surprise and humor. Critic and writer Stanley Crouch calls Monk “an abstracted stride piano player … he played it in a way that made it funny.”

During the ’40s, Monk was dubbed “The High Priest of Bop,” and along with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker he led a generation of musicians through the bebop era.

Monk was almost as well-known for his unpredictable behavior as for his unique musical techniques. He would get up from the piano and dance around the bandstand, and was often labeled as aloof, eccentric and weird. Even Monk’s son, drummer T.S. Monk, described his father as an “unusual guy.” Critics dismissed Monk, and even ridiculed him, but he persevered despite the bad press.

In 1951, after doing jailtime for drug possession, he was banned from performing in New York clubs. With the help of jazz patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, he was able to win back his right to play again.

Monk’s career took off with the recording of Brilliant Corners, and his work at the Five Spot in New York also helped win him a new following and reputation. He landed a contract with Columbia Records — at the time, one of only a handful of jazz artists to do so — and was featured on the cover of Time magazine.

Almost six years before his death, Monk stopped playing. No one knows why, although some speculate that there were health reasons. He spent most of those final years alone at the home of the Baroness. Monk died of a stroke on Feb. 17, 1982.

It took years for the jazz world to understand Monk’s contribution to the genre, but now his tunes rank among the most-played jazz compositions; his classic ballad “‘Round Midnight” is one of the most familiar themes in all of jazz. With numerous tributes and awards for his work, as well as legions of faithful fans, Monk has earned a unique place in the pantheon of American music.

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