High Times Greats: Thelonious Monk

Paying tribute to a jazz pioneer.
High Times Greats: Thelonious Monk
High Times

Jazz legend Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) was born on October 10, 1917. In honor of his birthday, we’re republishing John Swenson’s tribute to the late musician, printed in the June, 1982 issue of High Times. It’s followed by a sidebar on Monk’s 1982 funeral, written by Tom Baker.

Thelonious Sphere Monk pissed a lot of people off. He played great music and they called him names. They called him a junkie. They called him a fake, a jive n*gger. He put down the foundation for modern music and they took away his cabaret card so he couldn’t work.

Monk broke every rule there was. He kissed no ass. He wore sunglasses and funny hats. The people who think jazz belongs in museums and fancy supper clubs took exception to his lack of decorum. They busted him and they busted him hard.

Yet they couldn’t stop him from playing, and they certainly couldn’t stop him from influencing people. When he died at the age of 65 [in 1982], Monk had been in a long period of semiretirement and was safely acknowledged as a master, his revolutionary ways having been eclipsed by so many disciples that even the starchest of collars no longer saw him as a threat.

Still, Monk’s music retains its challenging edge to this day. Recordings he made in the late ’40s and early ’50s for Blue Note and Prestige are positively avant-garde in their rhythmic and harmonic conception today. It’s ironic to note, in fact, the number of new-wave rock bands whose obvious debt to Monk nevertheless leaves them sounding so much more conservative thirty years later. The Lounge Lizards are one group that comes to mind in this case.

Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, a superb theoretician who initiated a personal quest to interpret Monk’s material, has been recording a series of LPs of Monk tunes. “I learned a lot more,” explained Lacy, “in the process of listening and practicing, than merely the tunes themselves. The harmony, melody and rhythm are all interesting in Monk’s tunes. I like their shapes and the way they interlock—the harmony gives the shapes colors.”

The great jazz critic Martin Williams said, “Monk is the first major composer in jazz since Duke Ellington,” a theme elaborated on by Gunther Schuller in his analysis of a track Monk recorded for Prestige in 1954. “A real revelation for me was Monk’s rendition of the Kern tune ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.’ Here Monk deliberately turns it from a tune into a composition by means of instrumentation and chord alteration. He achieves this by splitting up the melody between piano and ‘horns’ and by beautifully altering one chord: A instead of E-flat against which he plays a D-flat C-major seventh in the right hand—one of the most beautiful spots in all of Monk. This is as good an example as I can find of the fact that what Monk actually plays is not so startling. It is juxtaposition of notes within a given context that is so highly original.”

Schuller’s description explains Monk’s technique of playing “wrong” notes deliberately to make the listener aware of relationships between melody, chords and rhythms that they normally take for granted. His challenging use of surprise and dissonance anticipated developments in all fields of the arts. His sense of the innate structures of songs could well be traced to his school days when an interest in piano composition coincided with a fascination with physics and mathematics. But Monk was no cold-hearted theorist—he played since age 13 in bands and toured the country backing up a singing evangelist.

Monk’s influence on other musicians began to be felt in the late ’30s and early ’40s when he played Harlem clubs like Minton’s Play House and the Uptown House with Lucky Millinder, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and other musicians who would go on to lead the bop revolution.

In 1944 Monk recorded for the first time as part of Coleman Hawkins’s group, and received his first serious notice as a composer when Bud Powell arranged for his band, which was led by Cootie Williams, to record the Monk composition “Round Midnight,” which along with “Straight, No Chaser” is probably his most famous song.

Monk began recording as a leader for Blue Note in 1947. His quintet featured the great drummer Art Blakey as well as S-hib Shihab on alto saxophone, George Taitt on trumpet and Robert Paige on bass. Between ’47 and ’51 Monk recorded many of his greatest tracks with sidemen including Max Roach on drums, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, trumpeter Kenny Dorham and saxophonists Lou Donaldson and Lucky Thompson.

A 1951 narcotics bust kept Monk in jail for 60 days and out of work for six years after his cabaret card was revoked due to his conviction, even though it was widely known that he took the fall for a pal. During that time he recorded occasionally, including the session described by Schuller. When Monk returned in ’57 it was with the legendary quartet that included John Coltrane on saxophone, Wilber Ware on bass and Shadow Wilson on drums.

Gigs with the Coltrane group at New York’s Five Spot Cafe on St. Marks Place in the East Village led to greater recognition for Monk, an orchestral recital of his compositions at Town Hall and a cover story in Time magazine. During the ’60s Monk began to get the kind of acclaim appropriate to his tremendous influence. A series of records for Columbia featuring saxophonist Charlie Rouse yielded some excellent and some not very interesting sides.

Ill health kept Monk from performing much during the 1970s, although he performed in ’75 at the Newport in New York Jazz Festival with a band that included his son Thelonious Jr. on drums. The last promoted concert by Monk was in ’76 at Carnegie Hall. Late-night jazz fans at Bradley’s, the fantastic University Place bar where the music rolls into the wee, wee hours, were treated to Monk’s last public appearance one night when he dropped in unannounced to play his unwitting swan song.

Monk’s recorded legacy is in pretty good shape.

Farewell, Monk

A number of limos lined the avenue in front of Saint Peter’s Church, but there was nothing glamorous about these cars; their purpose was definitely funereal. The crowds had been gathering since early morning and many pressed against the window on the street level, peering down into the sanctuary where more than 1,500 would gather to say good-bye to Monk. I spotted a friend who worked with Miles Davis and asked if “himself” was coming. “No, too big a crowd,” I was told. I patiently waited and squeezed into lines forming for entrance to Monk’s final gig. I stood in the back, with a partially obstructed view, and began checking faces, looking for Dizzy Gillespie or other jazz legends.

Diz never did show, but just about everyone else did. Gerry Mulligan, looking neo-albino with his snow white mane and beard, was natty in a dark suit, his large baritone sax resting alongside him. Tommy Flannagan, Sheila Jordan, Randy Weston, McCoy Tyner and Marian McPartland and many others were in attendance and would perform during the service. All the numbers played were Monk’s own, except for a hymn, “Abide with Me,” reminding us that Monk began his musical career as a gospel band leader at the age of 17.

About eight different sets were played that day, and the most popular selections were Monk’s “Round Midnight” and “Straight, No Chaser.” Mulligan did a solo and a set with Flannagan, then slipped out after about two-thirds of the nearly three-hour service. Max Roach did a special solo composed for Monk and George Wein. Walter Bishop, Jr., paid tribute, and jazz writer Ira Gitler delivered the eulogy. The open casket was directly in front of the pulpit, which was also the bandstand. The proceedings throughout were intelligent, serious, but also soulful, funky, if you will, much like Monk himself must have been.

—Tom Baker

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