Monk at 100

Analogies between music and other arts are notoriously slippery. Even if we can agree that Debussy and Ravel are in some sense Impressionistic, what makes them so? Is a suspended fourth chord or an augmented fifth really so much like a blurry water lily or a swirling sky of stars? It’s probably self-indulgent to call Thelonious Monk’s compositions “cubist,” even if that’s the word that seems to fit- often chopping up, rearranging and simplifying earlier Tin Pan Alley compositions, like how  “Evidence” borrows the harmony and some of the lead tones of the Tin Pan Alley song “Just You, Just Me,” with the title its own pun on this connection (Just You, Just Me-> Just Us-> Justice-> Evidence).


The old line is that simplicity of form is what allows a work of art to persist (so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow//glazed with rain water/beside the white
chickens). Monk’s songs were often modernist in harmony but absurdly simple in form, like the easiest jazz blues high school band students learn to play, “Blue Monk,” just a run up the chromatic scale with a skip and a turnaround:

In other compositions, there is a sort of jangling mockery of human speech reminiscent of the irritating and irritable characters who argue with Alice in Alice in Wonderland; the melody line of “Well, You Needn’t” as endearingly obnoxious as the Duchess, digging her chin into Alice’s shoulder.


In other’s hands, Monk’s tunes took on a totally different meaning- more emblematic of jazz as an Art Form with a capital A, less tied into his own, Mad Hatter’d sensibility. “Round Midnight” is perhaps the sound of Post-War jazz, personified (there was a reason Bernard Tavernier named his semi-big budget movie after the song), America awake in the middle of the night, aware of the darkness outside but in repose:

On the opposite side of the emotional scale, “Rhythm-a-ning” takes the chords from Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” and the same joyful exuberance, but drops any sense of cliche:

In contrast to that version by John Hicks and Kenny Barron, who float over the keyboard, as happy to glissando a phrase as to articulate it clearly, Monk’s playing was (like Glenn Gould’s) almost painfully deliberate in striking the keys, inside the soundboard rather than on top of it, you might say. In his famous album with the Jazz Messengers, the booming resonance of the piano often triples the melody with Bill Hardman’s trumpet and Johnny Griffin’s tenor saxophone; this is what my daughter, no jazz fan, calls the “drunken donkey” sound of jazz, and there’s no doubt it exposes the melody in electric neon with little shadow or shade:

His playing of other’s compositions and old standards was sometimes more sensitive than his playing of his own, and you had the sense of his own reverence before other’s compositions:


Monk was not a commercial success in his lifetime, and was dependent on rich patrons for large portions of his career. Like many aspects of America’s midcentury Periclean Age, Post-War jazz didn’t just happen, especially once it faded as a seller of records or filler of dance halls. The existence of jazz as an ambitious and intellectual art form of lasting meaning, created mainly by black musicians- an image that Monk embodied more than perhaps anyone- was ideologically convenient even though it was also true. As poptimism and elite enthusiasm for much less ambitious musical forms have taken over, as Taylor Swift and Beyonce and Lil Wayne receive the adulatory essays and polysyllabic political readings along with all the record sales, it’s hard to see another Monk or Mingus appearing on the American scene. Which is sad, but at least we still have the records, at least we still have the tunes.

4 thoughts on “Monk at 100

  1. As you say, Monk’s tunes sounded very different when played by anyone else. And they all play Monk tunes, but they don’t sound like Monk. What seems strange to me is that Monk’s influence on other musicians is hard to detect. That’s different from other jazz greats. Lots of piano players derived from Bud Powell, tenor players from Prez, alto players and may others from Bird. But can you think of any piano players who sound at all like Monk? Randy Weston and maybe Herbie Nichols.


  2. The only other person I can think of that I’ve bothered to read when they write about jazz is Terry Teachout, and he’s an amazing and talented writer (and has written two great biographies of jazz legends.)

    In other words, this was a great post.

    Liked by 1 person

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