Monday, July 5, 2010

Thelonious Monk

Our jazz quintet plays a lot of songs by Thelonious Monk-- Well You Needn't, Straight No Chaser, Misterioso, In Walked Bud, Let's Cool One, Blue Monk, I Mean You, and 'Round Midnight. Monk's songs sound unique, and I wanted to learn more about him.

Thelonious Monk lived 1917 through 1982, so he died at age 65. He was jazz pianist and composer, considered one of the giants of American music. Some have said he invented "bebop," but I think he's a lot bigger than that. He wrote about 70 songs.

"His compositions and improvisations are full of dissonant harmonies and angular melodic twists."

There's an excellent biography about Thelonious Sphere Monk written by Robin D. G. Kelley titled Thelonious Monk, The Life and Times of an American Original (2009). It's hard to imagine how a book about a jazz musician can be a "page-turner," but it is, at least for this reader.

Monk's melody lines and harmonies are very distinctive, and I wondered if his song writing and improvisation came naturally or if he really had to study and think. The answer is probably "both." But, (as am amateur musician) I was relieved to learn that he practiced a lot. A lot.

Kelley writes how Monk, working his way through "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You," the theme song for Tommy Dorsey's Orchestra, sounded on a recording of his practice--

The first take is painstaking; in five minutes, he gets through just one chorus of the melody. As he wrestles with each measure, every note in his reinterpretation of the melody is carefully placed. By the second take, played rubato (out of tempo), there are more alternations to the melody and increasingly dissonant harmonies. Toward the end of this take, Thelonious begins to integrate stride piano and improvises for the first time . . . The fourth, fifth, and sixth takes, which together add up to a little over an hour of continuous playing, are an exercise in discovery. Monk works through a wide range of improvised figures in a fairly systematic way. He repeats certain phrases, making small rhythmic and tonal alterations each time to see how they sound. . . [This] represents a fraction of what it took to transform "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" into a Monk original.

Monk played with all the other great jazz musicians through the 1940's to 1970's-- tenor sax players Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, trumpet players Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davie, alto sax player Charlie Parker, and drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach. There are many, many more.

(That's Thelonious Monk, Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge and Teddy Hill outside Minton's).

It's probably safe to say that Monk's genius was under-appreciated, and there were many times when he couldn't get gigs. He was prohibited from performing in New York for a period because of a minor drug conviction. But, some of Monk's troubles were caused by a then undefined mental illness. Monk was hospitalized on several occasions due to an unspecified mental illness that worsened in the late 1960s. No reports or diagnoses were ever publicized, but Monk would often become excited for two or three days, pace for days after that, after which he would withdraw and stop speaking. It may have been manic depression or schizophrenia, or he may have been bipolar.

On February 28, 1964, Monk appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and was featured in an article inside.

Here's some of what author Kelley writes about Monk's music--

Monk's unique sound has a lot to do with how he voiced his chords. As early as 1941, he was already experimenting with "open" voicing-- i.e. sometimes playing just the root and seventh of a dominant or major seventh chord, eliminating the third and fifth. The impact on the ear is quite startling. A standard major seventh voicing with the root on the bottom- C-E-G-B -sounds consonant, but remove the E and G and suddenly you have a highly dissonant chord, because the two remaining notes are only a half-tone away from each other. Invert the chord and you have a minor second. Often he would eliminate the root altogether and just play the seventh or the ninth in the bass.

Also, Monk was given credit for introducing the half-diminished chord, a minor seventh chord with a diminished or "flat" fifth (e.g. C-Eb-Gb-Bb). It became an essential element of Monk's harmonic language, partly because of the dissonance created by the C-Gb. That flatted fifth or "tritone" was critical to what would become his harmonic signature.


  1. You fuss with your writing (editing) for a few days after posting? So do I... it's always good to check back and see the fine tuning.