Arts and Entertainment

In Memoriam: Thelonious Monk

Monk transcended his era with his radical ideas, piano style, phrasing, cadences, and chords, and will continue to inspire many more generations of jazz musicians.

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By Lillian Zou

While on the first floor of Stuyvesant, you may see a plaque in memory of Thelonious Monk (’35). Forty years ago, on February 17, 1982, jazz visionary Thelonious Monk died from a stroke after battling a serious illness for several years. Though Monk spent his final years living quietly in seclusion, his artistry and originality as a composer and jazz pianist will live on forever.

Information about Monk’s childhood is conflicting and ambiguous. Monk never spoke to audience members or granted interviews. What is known is that Monk taught himself to read music by looking over his sister’s shoulder as she took piano lessons. When he was 11 years old, Monk’s mother was finally able to gather enough money to buy a baby grand Steinway and pay for his weekly lessons. From there, Monk learned to play classical pieces by Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Bach, Mozart, and many more, but lessons were discontinued once Monk turned his focus to jazz. He delved into the world of jazz by listening to musicians such as James P. Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Earl Hines on the radio.

By the time Monk was a teenager, he began entertaining at Harlem rent parties, during which he would raise money to pay for his family’s rent. He also received rigorous gospel training because his mother would bring him to church services. Monk became so skilled and won the Apollo Theater’s famous weekly amateur music contest so many times that he was eventually banned. He was also known to be a gifted math and physics student, but he dropped out of Stuyvesant High School around the age of 17 to pursue a career in music. Some say that Monk also studied at the Juilliard School of Music, but he was actually unable to attend after failing to obtain a scholarship by placing second instead of first in a contest. “I’m glad I didn’t go to the conservatory. [It] probably would’ve ruined me,” Monk is known to have said over a decade later. Monk was right. Being mostly self-taught helped him keep and develop an unjaundiced eye for music.

As an adult, Monk was quite the personality, and “one of jazz’s great eccentrics,” as The New York Post described. He wore strange hats, Chinese skullcaps, and bamboo-framed sunglasses, and made many mysterious remarks, such as, “It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light!” He also had an idiosyncratic habit of stopping, standing up, and dancing in circles before returning to the piano while other musicians continued playing during performances. However, Monk also had an unusually tense and spiky piano technique, which involved flattening his fingers. Many critics viewed Monk as primitive and incompetent, and the debate over his talent and skill continued over the years. Jazz critic Philip Larkin even dismissed Monk as an “elephant on the piano.” Monk’s music was beyond the grasp of most listeners of the time, and though he actually possessed an impressive knowledge of Western classical music, gospel music, and more, his unique performances were often puzzling to critical ears.

Monk’s odd habits seemed to have stemmed from his mental dysfunction. There are many contradictory assertions that Monk was autistic, was schizophrenic, or had Tourette’s syndrome (he was actually diagnosed with bipolar disorder), but his pharmacological history was far more direct in its influence. Later on in his life, Monk’s manic-depressive episodes became more problematic. Two or three days of excitement and restless walking would end with a period of withdrawal and mutism. His medical problems were triggered by a prior celebrity doctor who treated many socialites and artists, including Monk, with amphetamines under the guise of “vitamin” injections. Monk was also prescribed lithium as a mood stabilizer, which contributed to his unwillingness and lack of desire to play around the 1970s.

When the subject of Monk comes up, many are simply reminded of his personal eccentricities, but his piano style was even more unique. Though Monk’s compositions and improvisations offer melodic twists, dissonance, jarring harmonies, and rhythmic displacement, his approach was deliberate and thought-out. Instead of mindlessly playing notes, he would play sparse, two-note chords by taking the third and fifth out of a major seventh chord. This combination made a seemingly right chord sound completely out of the box. “All you’re supposed to do is lay down the sounds and let the people pick up on them. If you ain’t doing that, you just ain’t a musician,” Monk said. The bridge of “Coming on the Hudson” and the tune of “Brilliant Corners” (1957) are a testament to this idea, with Monk’s daring but careful use of dissonance. Furthermore, Monk’s rhythmic displacement and creativity gave him a distinct sound, as shown in “Rhythming Tune,” “Straight No Chaser,” “Rhythm-A-Ning,” and “Evidence.” Though some may believe that Monk’s radical and innovative vision went hand in hand with his mental dysfunction, he was in fact a very methodical and careful composer. Most of Monk’s famous tunes, such as “Round Midnight,” “Ruby, My Dear,” “Straight, No Chaser,” “Well, You Needn’t,” and “Blue Monk,” which are all now standard jazz repertoire, were written early on in his musical career before his mental health declined. In fact, as Monk became sicker, his performances became more musically conservative and less avant-garde.

Monk is famously known to have established the bebop movement along with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, yet his music had few ties to any movement. Rather, he made his own movement. Monk is simply recognized to be a crucial part of bebop’s emergence because he played with many of its musicians. However, his improvisations deviated from bebop’s usual fast and smooth eighth-note lines, characteristic scales, and frequent enclosures. Instead, Monk used an unconventional sentence structure, through which he added strange accents, a minor second double stop, or tritones in the middle of a phrase. For example, in the album “Bird & Diz” (1952), Monk’s improvisation in the tune “Bloomdido” showcases his deviation from the other bebop solos. Compared to Parker’s and Gillespie’s composed bebop solos, Monk’s solo sounded unchained. The bebop movement was radical in that it was meant to emphasize improvisation and individuality of sound compared to previous big band jazz, but Monk was able to take this individuality a step further and make his original sound.

Monk’s albums have been in the marketplace since the 1940s, but it was not until the 1960s that the general jazz audience recognized his name. He even received a cover portrait for Time magazine in 1964 and is one out of five jazz musicians to ever be featured on the cover. From there, Monk slowly but surely conquered the world and inspired many new generations of jazz musicians. He truly transcended his era. “Monk’s contribution hasn’t really reached full fruition. People haven’t given him the credit he deserves—it probably will take a little more time to show his true influence on the music scene in America. But I’m sure that when all is said and done, he will stand up as tall as any composer or instrumentalist America has produced,” Gillespie stated.