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.

It’s a little known fact that bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie actually ran for president of the United States back in 1964:

“What began as one of Dizzy’s famous practical jokes, and a way to raise money for CORE (Congress for Racial Equality) and other civil rights organizations became something more, a way for Dizzy’s fans to imagine an alternative to the “millionaire’s-only” club represented by Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater.”

Open Culture

The White House, henceforth to be known as the ‘Blues House’ would comprise the following cabinet: (more…)

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…)

Alex Belth introduces a profile of the jazz singer taken from Jazz Is
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Billie Holiday

When I first started listening to jazz I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know how I’d ever be able to tell the difference between Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, didn’t know how I’d ever determine the difference between John Coltrane and someone imitating Coltrane. I’m still an amateur but I can tell you this: the first performers I could identify by ear were Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, and Billie Holiday. Their sound is so specific, so singular, that even to the untrained ear, they are identifiable.

We’re lucky that Nat Hentoff was on hand to record so much of the Jazz scene in the ’50s and ’60s, and here he cuts through the popular mythology that often obscures Holiday’s great talent and shows us the depth of her musical gift. [Read 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…)