Hummable Genius

Jazz pianist Thelonious Monk helped shape a radical new way of thinking about jazz. With an ambitious six-week series, Duke Performances set out to explore Monk's music and its widespread influence.

Monk abides. That's Monk, as in Thelonious Sphere Monk. If the name rings with a slightly off-kilter resonance, at once elegant and a touch uncanny, it's only appropriate. The jazz composer and pianist, who would have turned ninety this October, was a singular brand of genius, an idiosyncratic marvel, and a pivotal figure in American music. Once you'd heard him, you could never forget him. His indelible melodies and brusque, angular rhythms adhered to their own internal logic, and they came to shape a radical new way of thinking about jazz, erupting out of Harlem in the early 1940s and permeating cultural consciousness ever since

Monk's more protean contemporaries, such as Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, achieved greater renown earlier in their careers, and generated bodies of work that were both epic and epochal. But this composer was always an insider's favorite. He'd been performing and recording for a quarter century before he won mainstream recognition. Monk was an enigmatic character who took the stage with his goatee and his haberdasher's array of hats—jumping up from the piano bench in mid-tune to dance around the bandstand as his sidemen soloed—and was publicly known as a man of few and often coded words. "He was a true eccentric, that's the way you could put it," says Charles Tolliver, the jazz trumpeter and bandleader, who was seventeen when he first saw Monk at a concert in 1959. "A maximum eccentric." And so, he remained a tad obscure even as his music, including songs like " 'Round Midnight," "Straight, No Chaser," and "Misterioso" became instantly hummable staples of jazz repertoire.

"He set a standard of hipness," says Jason Moran, the thirty-two-year-old pianist who is one of Monk's contemporary heirs. "If you are able to find out who he is, you become part of a separate society."

Duke Performances, perhaps better known in the past for showcasing more mainstream fare, is making an unprecedented effort to spread the word. True, Monk has enjoyed retrospective tribute at jazz festivals worldwide, and has inspired programs at such cultural bastions as Jazz at Lincoln Center and the San Francisco Jazz Festival. But he's never gotten quite the kaleidoscopic treatment he received from Duke in the six-week "Following Monk" series, which ran through the end of October and comprised seventeen performances (music, theater, and dance), including  commissions for Monk-themed projects created by Moran, Tolliver, and the Kronos Quartet. The series was scheduled to coincide with what would have been the late musician's birthday, October 10.

In tune: Monk and band rehearse for the 1959 concert at Manhattan jazz loft

In tune: Monk and band rehearse for the 1959 concert at Manhattan jazz loft. Michael Zirkle

"We wanted to explore the legacy in a bunch of different directions," says Aaron Greenwald, interim director of Duke Performances, "but also be respectful and musically uncompromising. That was critical. We wanted to create enough opportunities so people who don't know Monk's music [but] who were curious would accept the invitation."

Monk's music can strike a novice listener as being what jazz fans call "out," Greenwald notes. Certainly that was the perception in the 1940s, when critics and musicians outside his circle disparaged the pianist's percussive verve and his shifting, elliptical use of space between the notes as mere bad technique. As jazz historian Ted Gioia wrote, Monk favored "the stark repetition of the simplest melodic fragments, serving almost as a parody of traditional thematic development; thick, comping chords laced with dissonances, and dropped with the subtlety of a hand grenade."

It wasn't easy listening in 1942, but, over time, the idiosyncrasies of Monk's style have become an essential part of jazz language. "He's the first thing you learn now," Moran says, adding that after he first heard Monk, as a teenager growing up in Houston, Texas, in the 1990s, "I measured everything else up to him. Monk wasn't outside, Monk was inside." At Duke, Moran performed the world premiere of a new full-length piece he composed, based on Monk's music. (He was also a visiting artist first semester, coming to campus a half-dozen times to work with undergraduate and graduate students in various departments.)

History revisited: Sax man Jeffrey, one of Monk's contemporaries, helped introduce modern audiences to the jazz master's repertoire

History revisited: Sax man Jeffrey, one of Monk's contemporaries, helped introduce modern audiences to the jazz master's repertoire. Michael Zirkle

What made Monk's music remarkable was the way it could juxtapose a basic theme with a heady, complex treatment. At its core, a lingering ballad like "Crepuscule with Nellie," which Monk wrote for his wife, offers pleasures as instant as a lullaby. Something jauntier, like "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are," was so accessible that it snuck onto the soundtrack for Disney's 1961 animated film One Hundred and One Dalmatians, its melody appropriated for a tune called "Cruella De Vil." Children across America were singing along to Monk without even knowing it. But just to certify Monk's underground cachet—he also turned up, after a fashion, in Thomas Pynchon's first novel, V., which featured a cameo by an avant-garde saxophonist named McClintic Sphere.

"This is curiously complicated music to listen to," Greenwald says. "It's remarkable that so many people do. There're all kinds of elements we're trying to chase down in the series. Folk elements, for instance. He was born here in the Piedmont, so he would have been influenced by railroad songs, certain types of blues, of gospel music."

To best account for all those facets of Monk's life and art meant bringing in an array of Monk's more remarkable interpreters and contemporaries, such as jazz vocalist Andy Bey and jazz pianists Jessica Williams, Hank Jones, and Randy Weston, who could explore various facets of the composer's musical DNA: gospel, blues, stride piano, Negro spirituals, and folk songs. But Greenwald also wanted to explore the world that the pianist influenced.

Sound into motion: Alonzo King LINES Ballet

Sound into motion: Alonzo King LINES Ballet Company premiered two new Monk-inspired works. Michael Zirkle

"If you Google 'Thelonious Monk' and the name of any major hip-hop producer, you'll find some interview where they're going to be talking about what a huge influence he is," Greenwald says. "There's a legacy that hasn't been explored fully. I don't mean just his impact on jazz, but his impact on contemporary music and dance."

That meant looking at Monk through the prism of his influence on contemporary classical music, salsa music, and ballet and modern dance. Choreographer Robert Battle cites Monk as a formative influence, especially in what he calls a "deconstructive" approach to melody and rhythm. What he heard in Monk was a process of taking apart essential aspects of a piece of music and sticking them back together again, casting the familiar flow of notes askew through the use of suspenseful pauses and tempos that lingered and crashed. "He had a way of turning the thing upside down and shaking it a little bit," says Battle, whose Battleworks Dance Company's Monk Movements, a program of short pieces devised especially for Duke, reflects that sensibility. "It's one of the things I try to emulate in my own work, even when I'm using classical music."

Perhaps it was the way that Monk's sound countered mid-twentieth-century jazz convention that now makes it so congruent with other forms in which artists think outside the box. "Monk's music always felt very natural to where I was coming from," says David Harrington, a founder of the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet, a chamber group known for its embrace of eclectic sources and new composers. The group kicked off the six-week Duke series. "He's quite close to the avant-garde classical tradition, except for his rich sense of melody. That's something he had that they didn't."

Wild nights: Theater studies department production of Misterioso included musicians, singers, actors, and dancers who captured the creative energy of the Sixth Avenue jazz loft. Monk character, center, and Smith, crouched at left

Wild nights: Theater studies department production of Misterioso included musicians, singers, actors, and dancers who captured the creative energy of the Sixth Avenue jazz loft. Monk character, center, and Smith, crouched at left. Michael Zirkle


Harrington was fifteen years old the first time he heard Monk, in 1965, when his music teacher played a record for him. "I have a strong recollection of that, hearing this incredible sense of voicing and the spacing of chords and these beautiful asymmetrical rhythms." After Monk's death in 1982, the quartet was among the first groups to adapt his music outside a jazz realm, with its 1984 Monk's Suite. The composition broke new ground by bringing Monk, and other jazz composers, into chamber repertoire. For their Duke performance, the musicians brought new arrangements of " 'Round Midnight" that tested the elasticity of what is Monk's most popular composition, bending it this way with electronic touches, and that way with an Eastern European feel. Yet, no matter how far afield the musicians carried the melody, the music always circled home.

Monk was born October 10, 1917, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, but was only five when his family moved to Manhattan's West Side. He began playing piano four years later, and, as a teenager, hit the road for two years with a traveling evangelist. Mary Lou Williams, the great stride pianist and big-band arranger who was an artist-in-residence at Duke from 1977 until her death in 1981, met Monk in Kansas City during this period.

"He was already playing the music he would be playing in New York," says Sam Stephenson A.M. '97, director of the Jazz Loft Project at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, who has written about the gospel influences Monk shared with Williams (whose name graces the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture at Duke).

"Monk's playing is so dissonant," he says, drawing parallels to the rough, ecstatic outbursts of rural Pentecostal congregations, and the unvarnished communion of Sacred Harp singing. Monk was known to play spirituals like "Abide With Me," and Stephenson hears this as a perfect fit. "Listen to 'Monk's Mood,' " he says, referring to one of the pianist's best-loved ballads. "It sounds like an ancient hymn. It sounds like it's from another world."

During the early 1940s, Minton's Playhouse in Harlem was another world. It was here that Monk honed his style, playing alongside the likes of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, drummer Kenny Clarke, trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, and tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins. The musicians were incubating bebop, a revolutionary turn in jazz that emphasized often dizzying harmonic improvisations that rendered once-familiar melodic sources as a kind of higher mathematics. Monk was celebrated by some as bop's "high priest," but his own compositions, while highly influential, were far too personal and uniquely crafted to conform to any genre. He first recorded them for the Blue Note label in 1947 and, while he continued to compose throughout his career, would consistently recast the same body of work.

By 1959, he was approaching a pivotal phase in his career, which had been sidetracked by New York City's cabaret licensing laws. These required musicians to carry a performance license, which could be suspended or revoked if the performer was arrested. Unfortunately, Monk had suffered a few run-ins with the law over minor drug violations. Because of this, off and on during the 1950s, he wasn't allowed to play in New York clubs.

But in 1959, he booked a concert at Town Hall, a venerable Manhattan concert hall that wasn't affected by cabaret laws. He organized a big band and presented new arrangements of his music. It was a big deal. Even as Monk had prospered in the studio, making a series of brilliant albums for Riverside Records, he hadn't been heard in a New York nightclub since 1957, when he enjoyed a six-month residency at a club called the Five Spot with a group that featured tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. There was a growing audience that wanted to see what the buzz was all about. The event also was an occasion for Monk to expand his terrain, since his music was not usually performed in a larger ensemble.

The historic concert made a natural centerpiece for the Duke series, which took both a retrospective and an interpretive angle in exploring the performance. "It was remarkably intense music, and the ensemble played the daylights out if it," Greenwald says. He commissioned Tolliver, the musician who had witnessed the concert as a teenager, to put together a re-staging of the show, with transcriptions of the original charts. He also invited Moran to work up a piece based on the concert. Both musicians relied extensively on recordings of Monk archived at Duke's Jazz Loft Project, which oversees a massive collection of tapes made of jazz musicians, such as Monk, who played at a Manhattan loft rented by the photographer and amateur recordist W. Eugene Smith. (Students in Duke's theater studies department also made use of the materials in the loft project, presenting a ninety-minute performance piece, Misterioso, based on the people and events documented by Smith.)

A significant portion of the collection includes taped conversations about plans for the Town Hall concert between Monk and arranger and pianist Hall Overton, an instructor at the Juilliard School who lived in the loft. In a digital file from one of their sessions, you hear Monk pacing back and forth, talking with Overton, who sits at a piano. They're working on an arrangement for "Little Rootie Tootie," which got a stomping live performance at the concert. Throughout his life, Monk had the reputation of being a man of few and cryptic words. In fact, the tapes reveal that he's quite loquacious, if gruff and emphatic, and knows exactly what he wants. "Just hearing him talk is wonderful," says Moran, who was impressed hearing how the composer offered specific directions to Overton, almost making the arranger an extension of his own fingers. "It shattered my myth about Monk."

Moran's performance of his own Duke commission, "In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall 1959," which he is now touring, makes use of the recordings to create a sense of time travel. He frames the concert in three chronological sections: 2007, 1959, and the mid-1800s, "the time of Monk's grandfather, when he was a slave in North Carolina," he says.

Much has been written about "otherness" in jazz, and Monk's outsider status was lifelong, reinforced by his own gradual retreat from performing after he lost his contract with Columbia in 1970. "He'd play about once a year," recalls Paul Jeffrey, who ran Duke's jazz program for twenty years. Jeffrey was Monk's last saxophonist, onstage for what turned out to be the pianist's final show, at Carnegie Hall in 1976. "The audience was a real cross-section from a lot of different walks of life," Jeffrey recalls. "Intellectuals. Street people. He had a real underground society." It's not so underground anymore, not when Starbucks sells compilations of his most familiar tunes and his goatee appears on the label for a Belgian-style beer called Brother Thelonious. But as the Duke Performances series makes evident, there's still plenty of digging left to do, in both a literal—investigative—way and in the idiomatic sense: to enjoy.

"In the same way you engage people in a conversation about Shakespeare," Greenwald asks rhetorically, "doesn't it make sense to engage people in a conversation about Monk?"

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