One of the most original voices and idiosyncratic piano stylists in all of jazz, Thelonious Monk was also one of the genre's most prolific composers. His staggering output includes tunes that have become classics - "'Round Midnight," "Blue Monk," "Straight No Chaser," "Epistrophy," "Pannonica" and "Bemsha Swing," to name just a few - and have been covered by innumerable artists over the past 50 years.
For Monk's July 3rd set at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival, the enigmatic pianist-composer was accompanied by his longtime tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse and the rarely recorded rhythm tandem of bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor. Together they swung sympathetically and brilliantly on Monk staples like "In Walked Bud" and "Well You Needn't" along with a rousing "Rhythm-a-ning," while also displaying uncommon sensitivity on the evocative ballad "Crepuscule with Nellie." This stellar performance came just four months after Monk's celebrated Town Hall concert in New York, which featured ambitious tentet renditions of his music arranged by Hall Overton.
Monk opens his July 3rd set with a swinging rendition of "In Walked Bud," a piece based on the chord progression of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" and which Monk dedicated to his friend and fellow jazz pianist Bud Powell. Rouse stretches out heroically on his tenor solo here, blowing soulfully phrased, robust tones with unbridled conviction for several choruses while drummer Taylor spurs him on with his slickly interactive, boppish swing factor. Next up is the jaunty "Blue Monk," one of Monk's most frequently covered compositions in his expansive repertoire. Monk and Rouse play as one through the quirky-playful head before the tenor player launches into his relaxed solo, which he delivers with rare eloquence on top of Monk's spiky comping. Taylor's capacity for cutting up the beat in slick, inventive ways while maintaining a swinging pulse enlivens the track. Monk's solo here is a prime case of "less is more."
"Crepuscule with Nellie," a gorgeous melody Monk wrote for his wife in 1957, opens with some stirring unaccompanied piano before the full band enters for a patient, expressive treatment of this brief but beautiful number. "Well You Needn't," an off-kilter piece that marries dissonance and swing, is given a hip new treatment, courtesy of Taylor's inimitable syncopation on the kit. Monk's piano solo here is particularly unpredictable and arresting. The set closes on an energetic note with another of Monk's signature pieces, "Rhythm-a-ning," a typically quirky number based on the chord changes to George Gershwin's 1930 composition "I Got Rhythm." Monk's demonstrative comping here adds an edge to the proceedings while his solo is strictly subversive. Rouse takes his time and blows effortlessly over the changes on his graceful solo and Taylor imbues the track with a supreme sense of swing on the kit, culminating a most exhilarating set by a true jazz legend. A familiar face at Newport over the years, Monk appeared at George Wein's festival a dozen times over the years before dropping off the jazz scene in the mid 1970s and entering into seclusion.
In his autobiography, "Myself Among Others," George Wein wrote about first encountering Monk in New York in the late 1940s: "I had no inkling of his genius and not the faintest idea of how close we would later become." Wein was one of the speakers at Monk's funeral service held at St. Peter's Church in New York on February 17, 1982.
Born on October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Monk grew up in New York in the section of Manhattan (West 63rd Street) that is now the location of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. He started playing piano when he was around five and later became inspired by the Harlem stride pianists James P. Johnson, Willie "The Lion" Smith and Lucky Roberts as well as by more harmonically advanced pianists Duke Ellington and Teddy Wilson. During the early '40s, he played in the house band of Minton's Playhouse in Harlem and in 1942 worked with Lucky Millinder's band. In 1944, he played briefly with the Cootie Williams Orchestra (during this period, Williams was the first to record Monk's timeless composition,"'Round Midnight"). He recorded his first session with Coleman Hawkins in 1946. The following year, Monk was signed to a recording contract by Blue Note founder Alfred Lion, making his recording debut as a leader later that year. He was under contract to Prestige from 1952 to 1954, then in 1955 signed with Riverside, where producer Orrin Keepnews presided over a string of stellar Monk recordings, including 1956's Brilliant Corners featuring tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins. In 1957, Monk had a longstanding engagement at the Five Spot nightclub in New York with a quartet that featured tenor saxophonist John Coltrane along with Wilbur Ware on bass and Shadow Wilson on drums. A year later, he took up another extended residency at the Five Spot, this time with Johnny Griffin on tenor, Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass and Roy Haynes on drums. And in 1959 came his gala concert at Town Hall in New York (a tentet performance under the direction of arranger Hall Overton and documented on a live Riverside release).
A fruitful relationship with Columbia Records, which began in 1962, was a period of higher visibility for Monk. His recorded triumphs during this time included 1963's Monk's Dream and Criss Cross. Both best-sellers prompted a 1964 Time magazine cover story on the enigmatic artist entitled "The Lonliest Monk." He toured constantly throughout the 1960s with his quartet, which featured the ever-reliable tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse along with various combinations of rhythm tandems (including bassist Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley, bassist John Ore and drummer Frankie Dunlop, and near the end of his active career bassist Larry Ridley and drummer Thelonious Monk, Jr.). Then in 1973 he suddenly dropped off the scene entirely. Other than a few rare appearances during the mid-'70s, Monk lived the rest of his life in seclusion and died on February 17, 1982 in the Weehawken, New Jersey home of his friend and benefactor Baroness Pannonica "Nica" de Koenigswarter, a wealthy patron of several New York City jazz musicians. Monk's music - full of dissonant harmonies, idiosyncratic hesitations, angular melodies, dramatic use of silence and abrupt motific twists - continues to be played frequently on bandstands and on recordings by jazz musicians today, both young and old alike.
A 1988 documentary film on his complicated life and beautiful music, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser ( executive produced by Clint Eastwood and co-produced by Charlotte Zwerin and Bruce Ricker) contributed mightily toward keeping the legacy of Thelonious Monk alive. (Milkowski)