A brilliant composer, outstanding musician and enigmatic personality, Thelonious Monk stood out for his singular sense of structure, time and harmony. He is recognised today as one of the founding musicians and composers of modern jazz.
Thelonious Monk was taught music by his mother so that he could play the organ in church. He studied at the Juilliard School for a short time before joining drummer Keg Burnel's quartet in 1939. He very quickly knew where he was going and started to compose his own works. In 1934 he formed his own jazz band: instead of the "big bands" popular at the time, he preferred the more intimate quartet format as a vehicle for experimenting with his music and style. From 1941, he was taking part in the jam sessions at the Minton's Playhouse club in Harlem. Now that he had laid the groundwork of his musical style, he was a hit alongside the great jazzmen of the time, such as Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie and Kenny Clarke. He discovered the burgeoning world of "be-bop" jazz and the improvisation synonymous with modern jazz.
In 1944, Monk made his first recording with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet.Hawkins was a great source of inspiration and encouragement for his early career. In 1947, he made a recording for the Blue Note label under his own name, finally achieving recognition as a composer. Right from his early recordings, a number of Monk's compositions became jazz standards, such as Blue Monk, Straight, no Chaser, Well, You Needn't and especially 'Round Midnight.
Following his arrest for drug possession in 1951, Thelonious Monk was banned from playing in New York clubs. He therefore spent most of his time composing and recording, and just occasionally playing in theatres. He did his first European tour in 1954. While in Paris, he laid down several tracks for the French label Vogue and played on stage with Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie for a concert organised by the Verve Records label. His was a very idiosyncratic style of composing and performing, playing on contrasts, consonances and dissonances, silence and simplicity, qualities that led audiences and critics to doubt Monk's skills as a pianist. He was also criticised for his percussive, repetitive and dissonant piano playing (Thelonious Monk famously said "There are no wrong notes on the piano, just better choices"). It was only in the late 1950s that he began to be internationally acclaimed by jazz musicians and critics. The Thelonious Monk Quartet, with John Coltrane on the saxophone, was a huge success in New York. Thelonious Monk was offered a contract with the prestigious label Columbia Records and became one of the few jazzmen to make the cover of the standard-setting American magazine, Time.
He was dubbed the high priest and prophet of "be-bop", but rejected any such names. He withdrew from the musical world in the early 1970s, through to his death in 1982 (his last recording dates from 1971). This enigmatic character spent the last six years of his life away from the musical scene, living in seclusion as a guest of Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the daughter of Lord Charles Rothschild, and a great benefactor and patron of contemporary jazz.
Six landmark dates in the life of Thelonious Monk:
1944: First recording as pianist for Coleman Hawkins
1947: First recording under his own name for the Blue Note label
1954: First tour to Paris
1962: Signed with the Columbia Records label
1964: Made the cover of Time magazine
1973: Abruptly withdrew from the musical world
Six key recordings by Thelonious Monk:
1947: "Genious of Modern Music: Volume 1"
1955: "Thelonious Monk plays Duke Ellington"
1956: "Brilliant Corners"
1962: "Monk's Dream"
1966: "Straight, No Chaser"
Biography compiled from Radio France Musical Documentation (August 2014)