Influential jazz pianist Thelonious Monk was born one hundred years ago today, on 10 October 1917. His angular melodies and signature percussive style were an important contribution to the development of bebop in the post-war era. Popular titles such as ‘Round Midnight’, ‘Blue Monk’, and ‘Straight, No Chaser’ are considered standards in the jazz canon.
In a recent interview for Keyboard, popular jazz writer Ashley Kahn (Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album) discusses the legacy of Monk’s life and compositions on the development of modern music:
“What happened from the late ‘30s into the early ‘40s at the hands of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, etc., is that someone had to be there to kind of codify it. Someone had to be there to give it a sense of it being a system that could be learned and appropriated and shared and passed on. And the best person for all of this was someone, obviously, who was going to be sitting at a keyboard, because a chordal instrument is obviously going to be better than trying to do this on a melody instrument. And Thelonious Monk was that person.”
— Ashley Kahn, Keyboard
For newcomers to Thelonious Monk, there’s the question of where to begin. If you’re interested in the composer’s complex life, Robin D. G. Kelley‘s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original is an excellent place to start. Listeners are typically recommended volumes one and two of Monk’s Blue Note sessions, which span 1947 to 1952, and there’s little doubt that they offer the definitive introduction to his exuberant and idiosyncratic style. My first Monk record was his later solo album, Thelonious Alone in San Francisco (Riverside, 1959); while it might not be characteristic of his bustling, energetic group work, the album’s reflective mood still resonates with me all these years later.