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Thelonious Monk Biography

Home > Music > M > Monk, Thelonious > Biography

Birth Name: Thelonious Sphere Monk
Born: 1917/10/10
Birth Place: Rocky Mount, North Carolina, U.S.
Died: 1982/02/17
Genres: Jazz, Bebop, Hard Bop

Thelonious Monk (born Thelonious Sphere Monk, October 10, 1917 – February 17, 1982) was an American jazz pianist and composer considered one of the giants of American music. Monk started playing the piano at the age of six. Although he had some formal training and eavesdropped on his sister's piano lessons, he was largely self-taught. Monk had a unique improvisational style and made numerous contributions to the standard jazz repertoire. Monk is the second most recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington.

His compositions and improvisations are full of dissonant harmonies and angular melodic twists, and are consistent with Monk's unorthodox approach to the piano, which combined a highly percussive attack with abrupt, dramatic use of silences and hesitations. Monk's manner was idiosyncratic. Visually, he was renowned for his distinctive style in suits, hats and sunglasses. He was also noted for the fact that at times, while the other musicians in the band continued playing, he would stop, stand up from the keyboard and dance for a few moments before returning to the piano.

In the early to mid 1940s, Monk was the house pianist at Minton's Playhouse, a Manhattan nightclub. Much of Monk's style was developed during his time at Minton's, when he participated in after-hours "cutting competitions" which featured many leading jazz soloists of the time. The Minton's scene was crucial in the formulation of bebop and it brought Monk into close contact with other leading exponents of the emerging idiom, including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, Charlie Parker and later, Miles Davis.

In 1944 Monk made his first studio recordings with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet. Hawkins was among the first prominent jazz musicians to promote Monk, and Monk later returned the favor by inviting Hawkins to join him on the 1957 session with John Coltrane. Monk made his first recordings as leader for Blue Note in 1947 which showcased his talents as a composer of original melodies for improvisation.

After his cycle of intermittent recording sessions for Blue Note during 1947–1952, he was under contract to Prestige Records for the following two years. With Prestige he cut several highly significant, but at the time under-recognized, albums, including collaborations with saxophonist Sonny Rollins and drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach. In 1954, Monk participated in a Christmas Eve session which produced the albums “Bags' Groove” and “Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants” by Miles Davis.

In 1954, Monk paid his first visit to Europe, performing and recording in Paris. Backstage Mary Lou Williams introduced him to Baroness Pannonica "Nica" de Koenigswarter, a member of the Rothschild family and a patroness of several New York City jazz musicians. She would be a close friend for the rest of Monk's life, including taking responsibility for him when she and Monk were charged with marijuana possession.

At the time of his signing to Riverside, Monk was highly regarded by his peers and by some critics, but his records did not sell in significant numbers, and his music was still regarded as too difficult for mass-market acceptance. He willingly recorded two albums of jazz standards as a means of increasing his profile. The first of these, “Thelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington,” featuring bass innovator Oscar Pettiford and drummer Kenny Clarke, included Ellington pieces “Caravan” and “It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing).”

On the 1956 LP “Brilliant Corners,” Monk recorded his own music. The complex title track, which featured tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, was so difficult to play that the final version had to be edited together from multiple takes. The album, however, was largely regarded as the first success for Monk.

Monk relaunched his New York career with a landmark six-month residency at the Five Spot Cafe in New York beginning in June 1957, leading a quartet with John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Wilbur Ware on bass, and Shadow Wilson on drums. Unfortunately little of this group's music was documented due to contractual problems, Coltrane being signed to Prestige at the time. The Five Spot residency ended Christmas 1957, Coltrane left to rejoin Miles Davis's seminal sextet, and the band was effectively disbanded. Monk did not form another long-term band until June 1958, when he began a second residency at the Five Spot, again with a quartet, this time with Griffin (and later Charlie Rouse) on tenor, Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums.

After extended negotiations, Monk signed in 1962 to Columbia Records. Working with producer Teo Macero on his debut for the label, the sessions in the first week of November had a stable line-up that had been with him for two years: tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse (who worked with Monk from 1959 to 1970), bassist John Ore, and drummer Frankie Dunlop. “Monk's Dream,” his first Columbia album, was released in 1963.

Columbia's resources allowed Monk to be promoted more widely than earlier in his career. “Monk's Dream” would remain the best-selling LP of his lifetime, and on February 28, 1964, Monk appeared on the cover of Time magazine, being featured in the article, “The Loneliest Monk.” He continued to record a number of well-reviewed studio albums, particularly “Criss Cross,” also from 1963, and “Underground,” from 1968. But by the Columbia years his compositional output was limited, and only his final Columbia studio record “Underground” featured a substantial number of new tunes, including his only waltz time piece, “Ugly Beauty.”

As had been the case with Riverside, his period with Columbia Records contains many live albums, including “Miles and Monk at Newport,” from 1963 and “Live at the It Club” and “Live at the Jazz Workshop,” both recorded in 1964, the latter not being released until 1982.

Monk had disappeared from the scene by the mid-1970s, and made only a small number of appearances during the final decade of his life. His last studio recordings as a leader were made in November 1971 for the English Black Lion label, near the end of a worldwide tour with “The Giants of Jazz,” a group which included Dizzy Gillespie, Kai Winding, Sonny Stitt, Al McKibbon and Art Blakey.

As his health declined, Monk's last six years were spent as a guest in the New Jersey home of his long-standing patron and friend, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who had also nursed Charlie Parker during his final illness. Monk didn't play the piano during this time, even though one was present in his room, and he spoke to few visitors. He died of a stroke on February 17, 1982, and was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. In 1993, he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2006, Monk was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation.