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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Stunning life remembered: jazz great who rose from U.S. south

Thelonious Sphere Monk October 10, 1917 – February 17, 1982
Editing, comment by
Carolyn Bennett

I don’t particularly care for remembering death. I prefer remembering life and though 32 years ago this week an uncommon talent and renowned international musician Thelonious Monk died, his is a musical legacy that lives and is worth remembering. Most of us could live a thousand years and never come close to his accomplishments.  

azz pianist and composer Thelonious Sphere Monk is among American music’s giants, with an unmatched creative style of improvisation (e.g., ‘Epistrophy’, ‘Round Midnight’, ‘Blue Monk’, ‘Straight, No Chaser’ and ‘Well, You Needn’t’). His recorded jazz compositions, second only to Duke Ellington, left a lasting imprint on the standard jazz repertoire. Monk composed 70 works filled with difficult dissonance and angular melodic twists. Reviewers called his approach to the piano — a style combining highly percussive attack with abrupt, dramatic use of silence and hesitation — “unorthodox”.

Monk was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, grew up and grew musically in New York City, began playing piano at the age of six, and was touring in his teens. In his 20s and 30s, he was house pianist at the Manhattan nightclub, Minton’s Playhouse. Despite suffering abuses along the way from U.S. law enforcement’s finest, Thelonious Monk stacked up a lifetime of accomplishments. In 1944 came his first studio recordings with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet. In 1947 came his first recordings as leader for Blue Note, a showcase of the composer’s genius with melody and improvisation (later anthologized on Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1).

He makes recordings for American jazz record label Blue Note in the late 40s and early 50s then signs with Prestige Records. In 1954, he joins a Christmas Eve session that produces albums with Miles Davis. In 1954, Monk goes international with his first performances and recordings in Paris, France. In the summer of 1957, he assumes a six-month residency at the Five Spot Cafe in New York, leading a quartet with John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Wilbur Ware on bass, and Shadow Wilson on drums.

By the turn of the sixties, Monk is renowned. Riverside has taken over his Prestige contract and he records two jazz standards albums (e.g., “Thelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington” and “Brilliant Corners,” mainly performing his own works) and further heightens his profile. Together with live performances and European live recordings, Monk in 1962 signs with Columbia Records in a contract that lasts through1970.

n the years following his career, to honor and celebrate his tremendous contributions and to enable generations of musicians and performers to receive this torch, rose a center of learning. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz is founded in 1986 by the Monk family and the late Maria Fisher, an opera singer and lifelong devotee of music. The mission of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, according to its website, “is to offer the world’s most promising young musicians college level training by internationally acclaimed jazz masters and to present public school-based jazz education programs for young people around the world. All of these programs are offered free of charge to the students and schools, filling a tremendous void in arts education. The Institute’s programs encourage children to develop imaginative thinking, creativity, curiosity, a positive self-image, and a respect for their own and others’ cultural heritage.”

Since 1989, the Institute’s “Jazz in the Classroom” program has entered public schools around the world, “introducing millions of young people to jazz and its rich history.” The program “provides daily music instruction and instrument training sessions for public school students in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., along with master classes and assembly programs for tens of thousands of students in urban, rural, and remote areas of the country. One hundred percent of students in the instrument training programs graduate from high school and more than 90 percent go on to college. Leading jazz musicians and educators teach and serve as role models, helping students enhance their creativity and self-esteem.”

In the years following its inaugural, the Institute has hosted an annual International Jazz Competition; and through its partnership with UNESCO began the April 30 designation of “International Jazz Day.” In 2009, the birthplace of Thelonious Sphere Monk inducted him into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.

Sources and notes

Minton’s Playhouse: 21O West 118th Street, New York: Tenor saxophonist Henry Minton opened Minton’s Playhouse in 1938. In 1940, former bandleader Teddy Hill took over the club’s management and “concentrated much of his energy on regular Monday-night jam sessions in which visiting musicians took part. Among the guest performers who played there often were Dizzy Gillespie, Hot Lips Page, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Christian, and Don Byas. The resident musicians included Thelonious Monk (from 1939), Kenny Clarke, Joe Guy (who led the house band), and Rudy Williams (1945).  http://www.pbs.org/jazz/places/spaces_mintons_playhouse.htm


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