Thelonious Sphere Monk: American Genius


Chances are, you might recognize Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.” A perfect channeling of closing-time blues and noir meditation, it’s the most recorded song ever composed by a jazz musician. It’s responsible for Monk’s tunes having been set down more than any other jazzman except Duke Ellington, whom Monk unsurprisingly cited as a primary influence.

The two pianists are stylistically connected: As Ellington epitomized a cool that combined simple joy with sophisticated, even bizarre sonic exploration in pre–World War II America, Monk perfected the same combination in the postwar period. Monk mixed elegant ideas with deliberate crudity of touch, singability with weird wit, and childlike simplicity with mesmerizing strangeness. From very early on, listeners recognized in Monk’s compositions and idiosyncratic playing a bona fide genius. Some people thought he was crazy.

He may have been both. Monk’s style was angular and lyrical at the same time, serious and funny, and so was his look. Onstage he projected an aura of detached self-sufficiency, while still clearly communicating deep and direct enjoyment of melody. Not as famous today as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis or Charlie Parker, Monk is arguably the most important jazz writer in the second half of the 20th century. As he quipped, a genius “is the one most like himself.” He also said, “You’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig?” Compare this to Ellington’s “If it sounds good, it is good.”

Monk resisted the egotism of other bebop players obsessed with showing off their hard-won technique. His combination of dissonant harmonies, unexpected rhythmic stabs and surprising phrasing is on full display in this clip from Danish television in 1966. It also showcases the weirdness of Monk’s persona. Sometimes he chooses not to play (e.g., during Charlie Rouse’s sax solo, from 3:13 to 5:13), either standing or swaying in place. This was an odd but beautiful statement, especially for that time: Feeling the music is just as important as playing it. Monk’s solo that follows (starting at 5:13) is particularly representative—he follows the melody but veers into crazy side-of-the-road thoughts, yet never lets go of the main groove, always bringing it back home in the final cadence of each phrase. At 17:47 he completely changes mood by playing the standard “Don’t Blame Me,” expressing his roots in the classic stride style of jazz piano, but still flaunting his strange harmonies. Finally, he closes with “Epistrophy,” a Monk original.

In his final decade Monk retreated into solitude and silence, and died remaining a figure of mystery to many people. His recordings and performances continue to be admired all over the world. Monk “could take any standard and make you hear things both inside and outside of it that you’d never dreamt of before,” wrote his friend and patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. “He could make you hear the music inside the music, seemingly to infinity.”

Photo courtesy of Everett