He was eccentric. He was unconventional. He wore shades and funny hats. He was one of the most influential and groundbreaking jazz pianists of all time. He was the legendary mad genius of bebop, Thelonious Monk. Alternately revered and misunderstood, Monk is the embodiment of a musical innovator. During the first half of his career the public, and even many critics, wanted little to do with Thelonious Monk. Perplexing, erratic, seemingly unbeholden to all musical conventions, Monk’s piano playing was far too idiosyncratic and unorthodox for most people to digest. Only Monk’s esteemed peers, like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Coleman Hawkins, appreciated his unique gifts.
Although Monk had been playing steady gigs in New York nightclubs throughout the 1940s, such as Minton’s in Harlem, a 1951 narcotics arrest caused a serious setback in his career. Monk refused to testify against his good friend and fellow jazz pianist Bud Powell. (The stuff was Bud’s, but Monk took the rap for him). As punishment, Thelonious Monk was stripped of his cabaret card, thus banning him from performing in New York clubs for many years.
But after paying his dues both personally and professionally, Thelonious Monk’s long-awaited recognition finally came in 1957, with a triumphant six month residency at the Five Spot Cafe on Cooper Square. The quartet included the great John Coltrane on tenor sax. Those historic gigs marked the turning point in Monk’s career.
To listen to Monk play the piano is to be in a state of glorious bewilderment; the percussive hitting of the keys, the long note-free gaps and pauses, the dissonant chords, the fits and starts, the spontaneity and strange rhythms. It is not cacophony. It is pure creative invention.
For “Music Monday”, this is Thelonious Monk performing his signature composition Round Midnight. A true American original.