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 MasterpieceA 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.

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Charlie Parker

“Decades after Parker’s death, a new album compiles previously unknown performances by the alto sax legend. Critic Kevin Whitehead says the record will please both jazz experts and casual listeners.”

More at NPR.

Michael Wood (The London Review of Books) reviews Born to Be Blue and Miles Ahead
The places were Philadelphia and New York, the names were John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bill Evans and a few others, heirs to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, spoken of with awe in every version of the story. Something called West Coast jazz, thought by many to be an oxymoron, was making itself heard in the persons of Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Shelly Manne and Dave Brubeck. Davis made the albums Birth of the Cool in 1957 and Kind of Blue in 1959.

(more…)

Tenor saxophonist reflects on a career spanning more than 65 years
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Sonny Rollins

One of the last in a generation of jazz greats, Sonny Rollins once thought music could change the world. His optimism about humanity has since vanished but, at 85, he still has much he wants to say.

The “Saxophone Colossus”, a nickname that was also the title of his seminal 1956 album, is among a handful of sax players including John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins who defined the instrument, with Rollins creating a heavy-charging, mordant style that was also readily experimental.

The hard-working tenor saxophonist has taken several extended sabbaticals, most famously when he temporarily retired – yet would practice on New York’s Williamsburg Bridge. He later moved to India and Japan to explore spirituality. (more…)

From Ted Gioia’s article on Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist novel, Nausea
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Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

In general, Sartre is more committed to philosophy than to fiction, even here in the pages of his greatest novel. But when the story lags, the intensity of the intellectual debate flares up to compensate—so much so, that Nausea is essential reading not just for students of literature, but also for anyone interested in the evolution of Sartre’s views on a range of philosophical issues.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this book is Sartre’s decision to supply a happy ending. His horror story ends with a way out of the nausea. I am less than convinced by this turnabout in our suffering Mr. Roquentin, but as a longtime jazz lover, I am secretly pleased at the cure for the existential nausea. A jazz record featuring a singer and saxophonist does the trick—to be specific an old recording of “Some of These Days.” I only wish Sartre had been more specific about the names of the musicians on the date (he doesn’t identify any of them). I would love to hear the jazz record that trumps Freud, cures the ill, and solves existential angst. (more…)

In a 2014 review, Larry Rohter (New York Times) takes a look at David L. Lewis’s documentary

Early in “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step,” a documentary about the writer, critic and record producer Nat Hentoff that opens on Wednesday, Mr. Hentoff declares that “the Constitution and jazz are my main reasons for being.” That may seem an odd pairing to anyone unfamiliar with the man or his work, but Mr. Hentoff has nurtured those twin passions since the 1940s. (more…)

Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
An excerpt from a 2011 interview with Chris Richards (The Washington Post)

Mature, precocious, cultured and determined. Aside from a few summers in Maryland, Rollins spent his childhood in Harlem, a cultural epicenter that would shape him into a jazz icon who would steer the trajectory of the genre and the concept of improvisation writ large. As Rollins looks back, the chapters of his life often slice into neat little halves — separate realities where he toggled between success and struggle, renown and solitude. He apprenticed with the bop gods (Charlie Parker, Miles Davis) while battling the dark forces of addiction. At his highest levels of acclaim, he took mysterious sabbaticals that felt like vanishing acts. Today, Rollins says he gets through “this world full of problems” by reaching for higher spiritual plateaus that he “can almost touch,” but never quite does. (more…)