Thelonious Monk in 7 words
Thelonious Monk in 7 words © Getty  /  William Gottlieb

Thelonious Monk in 7 words

Seven words to better understand the musical genius of the legendary pianist and composer Thelonious Monk.

"My music often seems to avoid all possible rules: it is an extension of myself above all else", Thelonious Monk as described by himself. An important and influential jazzman, Monk was a key figure of the bebop movement though entirely unique in his music and personality...

New York, early 1940s. Jazz and band music were popular for their capacity to make people dance. However, the genre seemed to slowly lose its originality, becoming an increasingly repetitive and automatic discipline. Even the success of the great Louis Armstrong seemed to falter...

But not all was lost... In various clubs along 52nd street, a small group of musicians sought to push the limits of the musical genre, reinventing their own music.

From sunset to sunrise, each with his instrument of choice, the group led a small rhythmic and harmonic revolution. Their names? Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and… Thelonious Monk.

PIANO

These bebop performers are all fine musicians: Parker on sax, Gillespie on trumpet, Mingus on bass, and Monk on piano.

Thelonious Monk first discovered music and his instrument of choice as a child by playing on the family piano in the town of Rocky Mount, where he was born on 10 October 1917. As an adolescent living in New York with his family, Monk would often frequent Harlem's rent parties, a regular event in Harlem since the 1920s, where financially-troubled homeowners would organise concerts in front of their homes in order to collect coins and other donations. It is here that the young Monk developed his peculiar and very personal style of playing, an incomparable piano technique that would make the man a legend.

INDEPENDENCE

"My parents were not musicians at all, and I am the only one in the family to have gone in this direction... [...] In fact, as far as I’m concerned, I never needed to learn how to play; it seems to me that I always knew how to read the notes and translate them into sounds. My elder sister started by taking music-lessons, and I just looked over her shoulder. When I started taking lessons, I knew enough to get by on my own. I never needed to learn how to play. I was gifted."

Music lessons were of little interest to the young Thelonious Monk, who preferred instead learning and practising on his own, a self-taught musician. Even when performing alongside other musicians, he followed his own path. Though he often played in his early days with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and was often nicknamed the "High Priest of Bebop" by the press, Monk always remained detached from the musical style, gradually moving away from the music of his fellow musicians over the years.

Monk's two influences specifically and repeatedly referenced by the pianist were liturgical music, which he would often hear when accompanying his mother to church, and the stride music of the pianist James P. Johnson. The piano stride genre first appeared in Harlem in the 1920s, an heir of the blues but with a great importance given to improvisation. The left hand takes care of the rhythmic and harmonic bass line whilst the right hand explores the upper registers of the keyboard.

Né en 1894 dans le New Jersey et mort en 1955 à New York, le pianiste James P. Johnson a inspiré nombreux pianistes tels que Duke Ellington et Thelonious Monk.
Né en 1894 dans le New Jersey et mort en 1955 à New York, le pianiste James P. Johnson a inspiré nombreux pianistes tels que Duke Ellington et Thelonious Monk. © Getty  /  William Gottlieb

CLUBS

Monk slowly developed and honed his musical skills in the different clubs of New York, gradually forging a reputation for himself. His employment at the Five Spot Cafe in 1957 allowed him to reach a wider public than the jazz aficionados, and several years later his career began reaching beyond the American borders.

Yet he was banned from playing in clubs between 1951 to 1957, following his arrest for the use of narcotics. His work permit confiscated by the authorities, the pianist was forced to ask the help of his friend Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, known as the "bebop baroness" due to her friendship with, and support of, the genre's many artists.

The clubs and nightlife antics represent an aspect of Monk's personality that long fascinated journalists and other writers, notably Time magazine. On 28 février 1964, Monk made the front page of the prestigious weekly New York publication, though not to discuss his music but rather his various addictions and other personal complications.

La Une du Time, le 28 février 1964.
La Une du Time, le 28 février 1964.  /  BORIS CHALIAPIN

INSTABILITY

Monk's instability is first and foremost something to be heard: it exists and is expressed through his music. He deconstructs rhythms and harmonies, creating a musical instability that both draws listeners in and sends them off on a wild exploration.

Monk's instability could also be seen on stage: between two pieces, he would walk around the piano, swaying. In 1961, the French journalist Michel Samson wrote an article following a concert in Marseille: "He walked on stage, very late [...] - he came on from the left, with his hat and Astrakhan fur coat despite the heat of the spotlights, him, the legend, staggering behind the piano: we were fascinated and terrified, we were worried that he was going to fall, but he eventually returned to the piano and began playing both new and familiar melodies."

RE-INTERPRETATION

The word improvisation would have just equally suitable, since Monk was well and truly a master of improvisation. However, his most marking quality was his capacity to reinvent and renew himself using the same musical material.

During his tours of the United States, Europe, and even Japan, he endlessly (re)interpreted the same works in novel and surprising ways. Monk knew how to experiment with his own music just as well as with the traditional jazz standards.

PARADOXES

A master of improvisation and spontaneity, Monk was no less a talented melodist and composer whose works have stood the test of time. Round Midnight, Blue Monk and countless others have inspired and continue to inspire many of the greatest jazz musicians.

Another paradox in the music of Monk: its apparent deconstruction. To the listener, nothing seems calculated or thought-out. The notes seem to flow and follow one another without logic or reason. And yet there lies beneath a system of organisation respected by the pianist: his own, obviously, one that many critics and jazzmen respect and admire, such as Bill Evans.

SILENCES

There are silences throughout the life of Thelonious Monk. Throughout his music, naturally, since he intersects his rhythms with pauses and ellipses…

There is also the famous silence of The Man I Love, recorded in 1954 with Miles Davis. As the air of the famous ballad composed by George Gershwin begins, Monk can be heard asking "When am I supposed to come in, man?" Another famous and oft-discussed character trait...

However, discussions were less frequent for interviews with the artist. Monk disliked interviews, and only ever talked about his music. When asked his ideas and opinions about politics, he answered "Well, I'm not in power". With regards to the rampant racial discrimination present throughout the United States, he simply replied: "Well, I don't know anything about that".

Monk's final silence came at the end of his life, on 17 February 1982. Between his last concert in 1975 and his death seven years later, the pianist lived , alone with his wife Nellie, to whom he paid homage in Crepuscule.