Born October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Monk was raised in New York City from 1922 on. He started playing piano at age nine and eventually applied his keyboard skills to playing in church and going on tour with an evangelist. His first studio recordings came with Coleman Hawkins in 1944, while his first recordings as a leader came for Blue Note in 1947. By that point Monk had already had a major influence on the development of bebop as the house pianist at Minton's Playhouse.
Despite that, and even though he was dubbed "the high priest of bebop" -- partly for his sartorial choices -- Monk's main influence on the style was harmonic and compositional (his ballad "'Round Midnight" was nearly an instant standard); it was his protege Bud Powell's quicksilver right-hand figures and left-hand chordal punctuations that provided the template for bop's first few generations of pianists. In fact, some horn players found Monk's unpredictable comping disconcerting, most notoriously Miles Davis. His oddly square rhythmic sense, the mix of blues and whole-tone scales, the jagged contours of his melodies (whether composed or spontaneous), the stripped-down voicings through which he conveyed chords other pianists would use two or three times as many notes for -- everything he did was individual. And when playing solo, no other bopper incorporated the old-fashioned stride style anywhere near as much as Monk.
Early in his career, he was misunderstood; some critics called Monk a clumsy pianist who played wrong notes. Monk's tunes are much more than a melody and a chord progression, their spare elements meshing in often witty ways that suggest formal classical composition while nonetheless being firmly rooted in blues and swing. Structurally interesting, full of piquant dissonances, sometimes using whole-tone scales, they're often more intricate than typical bop vehicles for improvisation -- and Monk always favored solos building off thematic elements rather than merely playing new ideas over the progressions.
By 1964, without significantly changing his style, he'd made the cover of Time. By then he'd been on Columbia for two years, which obviously can take a musician to a higher level of public recognition, but it was largely built on the foundation of a series of classic albums recorded during his seven years on the indie Riverside, with its producer/co-owner Orrin Keepnews a firm supporter. The 15-CD The Complete Riverside Recordings would be a wise investment; eight of the albums on the list below of recommended recordings are in the set.
By the end of the '60s, Monk had retreated into an uncommunicative existence; he made his last recordings in 1971, having declined only slightly from his peak. In the quarter century since his death on February 25, 1982, many more of his inimitable compositions have achieved standard status, and in jazz history he arguably ranks second only to Duke Ellington (one of his few major influences) as a writer of utterly distinctive and memorable music. What follows are the albums I believe allow one to best appreciate Monk's genius.
Genius of Modern Music, vol. 1 (Blue Note)
This disc contains Monk's complete 1947 sessions. First comes a sextet session that's certainly of historical interest as Monk's debut as a leader, though the horn players are nothing special and the most notable track is "Thelonious." But solos aren't the point in these succinct renditions (because they were recorded for short 78-RPM discs -- this is pre-LP era); the attraction is Monk's writing and arranging, and the horns come through in that regard. From a week later, the classics "Ruby My Dear," "Well You Needn't," "Off Minor," and "Introspection" are enlivened by Monk's profound rhythmic collaborations with drum icon Art Blakey along with bassist Gene Ramey. A couple of well-chosen and imaginatively reinterpreted standards add context: Gershwin's "Nice Work If You Can Get It" and Vernon Duke's "April in Paris." These trio tracks, most heard twice, convey his vision most purely. A month later, a quintet session features "In Walked Bud," "Monk's Mood," and "'Round Midnight," all classics albeit better developed in later years.
Genius of Modern Music, vol. 2 (Blue Note)
A positively spectacular 1951 session reunites Monk and Blakey and adds vibraphonist Milt Jackson, one of the few frontline improvisers of the time who could operate on Monk's level, with Sahib Shihab on alto sax and the underrated Al McKibbon on bass. "Four in One," "Criss Cross," "Straight, No Chaser," and "Ask Me Now" would be classics for years to come, while a rendition of Ann Ronnell's "Willow Weep for Me" shows what a brilliant blues ballad it can be. On the 1952 session, Monk's farewell to Blue Note as a leader, he returns to the sextet format, with better results than on his first session. Max Roach replaces Blakey, and trumpeter Kenny Dorham stands out among the soloists, who also include Lou Donaldson on alto and Lucky Thompson on tenor. Aside from "Let's Cool One," Monk largely dropped this material in future years, but it's nonetheless first-class stuff. "Skippy" and "Hornin' In" may have fallen by the wayside because they're so complex and tricky, while "Carolina Moon" is in the time signature of 6/4 (good thing Roach was the drummer!), unusual for the time.
Completists and those willing to spend $56 as opposed to $22 can spring for The Complete Blue Note Recordings, a four-CD box containing all of the Genius material plus a crucial July 1948 session with Jackson that gives us Monk's first leader recordings of "Misterioso," "Evidence," "I Mean You," and "Epistropy." There's also a 1958 club concert (in poor sound) with John Coltrane, plus two excellent tracks from a 1957 Sonny Rollins LP.
Monk's Prestige sessions certainly offer many pleasures, but flaws as well -- somebody should've tuned the piano for the 1952 trio sessions. Historically important, musically fascinating, and downright magnificent on two tracks with Sonny Rollins, but better was to come. It's worth sampling Thelonious Monk/Sonny Rollins for those plus two trio tracks where the piano was tuned.
After the Blue Note and Prestige material proved not to be commercial blockbusters, the fledgling indie label Riverside was able to add Monk to its roster by routing $108.27 through him to Prestige to repay the excess part of an advance.
Brilliant Corners (Riverside)
After two earlier Riverside trio albums of familiar Duke Ellington tunes and standards to ease the public into Monk's unorthodox style, the quintet LP Brilliant Corners hit full-blast with his most daring conceptions. As Keepnews put it, these October and December 1956 sessions find "a perfectionist leader driving a group of sensitive and highly talented artists beyond their limits." The sidemen include Rollins and Roach on all tracks except Monk's impromptu solo take on the standard "I Surrender, Dear." The October dates, with alto saxophonist Ernie Henry and bassist Oscar Pettiford, open with "Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are," showing that Monk could find odd angles even in the blues -- his solo is a masterpiece of shifted accents, unexpected notes, and strategically deployed silences. On the lovely "Pannonica," Monk plays celeste with his right hand on the heads and most of his solo, giving the piece a unique sound. Then comes the slightly sinister title track, so tricky in construction that in four hours the band attempted it at least 25 times without making it all the way through successfully. Keepnews stitched the final track together from several takes, far from standard operating procedure for jazzmen at that time. Despite the difficulties, it's thoroughly successful, with Rollins in particular really digging into the nooks and crannies in his solo. By the December session, Henry and Pettiford were replaced by trumpeter Clark Terry and bassist Paul Chambers for "Bemsha Swing," a simpler tune (eight-bar blues) yet nonetheless prototypically Monkish, that was quickly picked up by many jazzmen. Roach adds color by playing timpani in addition to his regular kit. Brilliant Corners is quite arguably the creative peak of Monk's career.
Monk's Music (Riverside)
The famous cover of Monk sitting in a little red wagon emphasizes his unpretentious individuality. On this Jun 1957 session Monk used a quartet of horns: tenormen Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane (elder statesman and fast-rising newcomer), altoist Gigi Gryce, and trumpeter Ray Copeland. The very first number, by a different Monk, is a verse of the hymn "Abide with Me" by William Monk, with just the horns. Next is an epic exploration of the intricacies of "Well, You Needn't," an etude on the use of rhythmic displacement in making a simple theme compelling. Monk's solo is particularly dazzling (Copeland's, frankly, isn't). Things are stripped down as the ballad "Ruby, My Dear" is played magisterially by a quartet of the gruffly tender Hawkins and the rhythm section. The quirky "Off Minor," another akimbo masterpiece, is revived, the horn arrangement giving it new piquancy. Then comes the very familiar territory of Monk's theme, "Epistrophy," in a marathon reading chock full of solos, with Blakey dropping bombs and slinging masterfully off-kilter accents all over the place. A complex Thelonious original, the delicately gorgeous "Crepuscule with Nellie," is mostly trio (the great Wilbur Ware on bass, and Blakey mostly on brushes); then the horns enter reading a chart. Basically it's such a beautiful piece that simple statement of the melody without improvisations works just fine, but it's so complex and full of so many structural pitfalls that anyone but Monk improvising on it when it was brand new could easily have come to disaster.
At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note)
One thing that had been holding Monk back commercially was that in 1951 he had lost his NYPD-issued cabaret card after being busted for possession of drugs (he took the fall for their owner, supposedly Bud Powell) and thus for years wasn't allowed to play in New York City clubs that served alcohol. When he finally got his card back, he landed a residency at the Five Spot, and soon that was the hottest group in town. The quartet of Monk, Coltrane, Ware, and drummer Shadow Wilson became legendary. This isn't quite that group -- vAhmed Abdul-Malik had taken over on bass -- but this Voice of America tape of two short sets from a November 29, 1957 benefit offers the best combination of sound and performance that can be found for that group. Monk and Trane intertwine their lines with spontaneous brilliance on an extended "Monk's Mood" that stays a piano/sax duo until well along, when the drums and bass enter very discreetly. The energy level explodes when the full quartet pulls out all the stops on "Evidence." The effervescent "Nutty" launches Coltrane on an exciting solo, dissecting the changes but interspersing his runs and arpeggios with rhythmic punctuations and some more lyrical moments. Monk then puts on an improvisational clinic of his own, improvising more thematically, deconstructing it and rebuilding. The late show starts with the jaunty, Latinate "Bye-Ya"; Trane's solo is in "sheets of sound," the roulades coming fast and furious, while Monk's solo is playfully full of suspenseful silences. "Blue Monk" appears in a new arrangement with the sax plays a minor third under the melody instead of the usual unison. Then Coltrane gets to solo on the blues changes while Monk skitters around the keyboard. Monk's own solo is refreshingly pungent and witty, spraying startling dissonances and displaying his own underrated technique with some dazzling runs before making it all cohere again into the theme. It was shows such as this (and I've only described highlights) that increased Monks fame 50 years ago.
Thelonious in Action (Riverside)
Monk's tunes receive expansive, wonderfully spontaneous explorations on these live albums, recorded on the same August 7, 1958 evening at the legendary Five Spot. Many commentators have remarked that Art Blakey was the ideal drummer for Monk, but if there was a drummer whose style was perfectly aligned with Monk's music, it was Roy Haynes, who kept time and improvised on the same motivically oriented wavelength as the pianist. Tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin was Monk's opposite in his voracious dashes through chord progressions, yet a soulful player who's ultimately a most complementary foil. The vastly underrated, highly imaginative Ahmed Abdul-Malik is on bass. Such classics as "Rhythm-a-ning," "Evidence," "Blue Monk," and "Misterioso," plus such lesser-known gems as "Light Blue" and "Coming on the Hudson," benefit from the purity of focus and avoidance of superfluous gestures that characterize this gig.
At Town Hall (Riverside) This 1959 concert in New York City puts Monk's music into a small big-band context with Hall Overton's arrangements for seven horns and rhythm section. The solo spotlights may be shorter, but baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, alto great Phil Woods, trumpeter Donald Byrd, and others shine on this special occasion. Overton's charts are faithful to both the note and the spirit of Monk's creations, often built around transcriptions of the piano part.
5 by Monk by 5 (Riverside)
The album title translates as five pieces by Monk played by a quintet with trumpeter Thad Jones, Monk's new regular tenorman Charlie Rouse, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Art Taylor. This June 1959 session is Monk's last blast of creativity at his peak, with two new and challenging works, "Jackie-ing" and "Played Twice." They join the immortal "Straight, No Chaser" and "I Mean You" and the underrated "Ask Me Now."
Thelonious Alone in San Francisco (Riverside)
Monk's second solo LP for Riverside, recorded in October 1959, is both inspired and charming. The old standbys ("Blue Monk," in possibly its most probing performance; "Ruby, My Dear") are balanced by less frequently heard Monk favorites ("Pannonica," although he'd return to this more next decade; "Reflections"), new items never repeated ("Bluehawk," "Round Lights"), and a sprinkling of non-Monk oldies ("There's Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie," "Remember," "Everything Happens to Me," "You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth"). This is Monk fully matured but still fresh in inspiration. Monk's time on Columbia brought him greater fame, but got a bad rap as a period when he just repeated his old repertoire over and over and was nearly always recorded in the same setting -- his working quartet. Taken as a whole, these elements are a problem, but individually all the Columbia quartet albums are quite good.
Monk's Dream (Co lumbia)
On his first album for the label, though he'd recorded seven of the eight songs previously, there's a blazing intensity throughout that more than compensates for the familiarity of the material. (That said, the most exciting track is the new one, "Bright Mississippi," derived from "Sweet Georgia Brown.") And the eventually long-standing collaboration between Monk
and Rouse, still fresh at this point, avoids even the slightest sense of routine.
Big Band & Quartet in Concert (Columbia)
This is a December 30, 1963 sequel to the 1959 big band album; in a bit of smart planning, none of the arrangements overlap. It's not quite at the same level, mostly because Monk's rhythm section here (bassist Butch Warren and drummer Frank Dunlop) was no match for '59's Sam Jones and Art Taylor. But with Hall Overton again supplying faithful arrangements for tentet (no tuba this time; Thad Jones on cornet instead), and with some of the same horn players, notably Rouse, it's darn close. There are also solo and quartet numbers.
Live at the Jazz Workshop -- Complete (Columbia Legacy)
In the studio all those quartet LPs might not have been so inspired, but in concert, with the intensity seemingly turned up a notch and with the best lineup Monk had in the '60s, he really delivered the goods. This two-CD set recorded November 3-4, 1964 at a popular San Francisco club. Rouse, vastly underrated, is joined by the superb rhythm section of rock-solid bassist Larry Gales and subtly yet ebulliently swinging drummer Ben Riley. Comparing the two takes each â€“ hardly unusual in club recordings â€“ of "Bright Mississippi," "Well You Needn't," "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are," "'Round Midnight," and "Hackensack," it's clear that the level of creativity applied to each performance remained thrilling. Even Monk's theme "Epistrophy," played hundreds of times by him, is inspired in the extended version that closes disc, featuring a Monk solo where he toys with the melody, changing its shape, and stretching it (almost seeming to temporarily poke it into a different key without modulating the underlying harmony) -- a masterful demonstration of his motivic variation techniques that set him apart from most bebop players and can startle even experienced listeners on even the most familiar tunes. Rouse uses this technique as well, matching Monk's style more than any of his other saxophonists. This set's the pick of many live '60s releases (official or bootlegged), but the two-disc set Live at the It Club -- Complete (Columbia Legacy), recorded a few days before, ranks just an iota behind it.
Monk Alone (Columbia Legacy)
This two-CD set combines the 12 tracks of the 1965 LP Solo Monk (his only solo LP for Columbia) with the other solo outings scattered across other Columbia albums and previously unreleased solo material, for a grand total of 37 tracks. In any context Monk was one of the most distinctive and inventive jazz musicians ever, but when playing by himself, his uniqueness was especially apparent, most of all his oddly square yet swinging sense of rhythm. Minus a rhythm section, and focusing on standards, he favored the stride style he grew up with, almost always operating on the slow side of mid-tempo. There's a certain quaintness to his oom-pah left hand, bouncing between the bass notes and chords, but his harmonies were (and remain) utterly modern, sprinkled with clusters and two-handed fullness but also frequently implying complex chords with just a few crucial notes. In the right hand, he plays -- or plays with -- the melody, not only on the heads but also during his improvisations. Aside from a few of his famous originals ("Ruby, My Dear," "Ask Me Now," "'Round Midnight," "Introspection"), the bulk of the material is standards, whether well-known ("Body and Soul," "Don't Blame Me," etc.) or obscure ("I Love You Sweetheart of All My Dreams"), items he rarely or never played in group contexts, unveiling a less-familiar side to his genius. To hear him lovingly deconstruct "I Surrender, Dear," to take just one of many examples, is to hear the workings of his musical mind.
I have left out a lot. Every one of the albums from his prolific Riverside period is of great merit except two European concerts finishing out his contract. It's hard to go wrong with Monk; only a mismatched set of big-band arrangements by Oliver Nelson qualifies as a bad album: Monk's Blues (Columbia). But even as a survey of Monk's most crucial albums, the above list adds up to a lot of listening. So for those looking for a more concise introduction, here are the absolute must-haves:
Genius of Modern Music, vol. 1 (Blue Note)
Genius of Modern Music, vol. 2 (Blue Note)
Brilliant Corners (Riverside)
At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note)
Thelonious Alone in San Francisco (Riverside)
-- Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who last year recorded his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.