With October 10 marking the hundredth anniversary of Thelonious Monk’s birth, much of the commentary in the jazz music world has focused on the pianist’s distinctive gifts and eccentric behavior. Born Thelonious Sphere Monk in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in 1917, Monk was a bebop pioneer who swiftly left that medium behind for a style of music entirely his own making—full of unpredictable turns, shifting time signatures, and paradoxically melodic dissonances. At one hundred, Monk stands as a god-like figure, blessing us with the possibilities of jazz composition. What Louis Armstrong is to the art of the solo, Monk is to the art of a song in its entirety.
He was not a prolific writer, composing only about seventy songs. But it was as though each composition became a standard in the Monkian universe, whose reach extended to all of jazz, and especially to the minds of jazz musicians who, in the late 1950s, were looking for new roads to explore.
Monk’s own creative breakthrough occurred at a series of sessions for Blue Note in 1947. By the time he paired with John Coltrane—a tenor saxophonist looking for a specially designed, and specially rewarding, road to explore—in 1957, Monk was with the Riverside label. This proved to be his final, full-on flowering as a writer, though he lived until 1982. He died rather young, as too often seems to happen to gifted musicians, and nearly as much has been made of his quirks as his music. At times, he spoke like a bebop savant beamed in from another world; at others he said nothing at all for days on end. Moved by an engrossing solo from one of his bandmates at a concert, he would arise and dance a little jig around his piano. He was found of pacing, and would do so, in silent contemplation, for hours at a time.
Monk was the jazz musician who first pulled me into the medium, but not through the usual means you would expect. I had been thrilled by Charlie Parker—who became my favorite jazz musician—but upon first hearing the alto player as a mid-teen, I was so unaccustomed to the speed at which the music went that it outpaced my ears, which were used to rock and roll backbeats. My first Monk encounter occurred around the same time with his 1958 live album, Thelonious in Action, cut at New York City’s Five Spot Café. Thus was instigated a regularly renewing love affair with what I think of as the most overlooked area of Monk’s career, his in-concert prowess.
The sound quality of Thelonious in Action provides a wonderful ambience. You hear the occasional clinking of beer and wine glasses, tables being adjusted, patrons coughing; it is as though Monk and his band were sitting not ten yards in front of you. Monk’s music, for all of its shifting and turns, has a way of situating you in the dead center of his compositional canvas. This live album worked that same way. I didn’t know at the time that Monk had entered the live album portion of his career, when in-concert sets were becoming what you would normally be looking for at the record store in terms of the latest Monk LP on offer.
And what a band this was, one of the great small group units in jazz history. Roy Haynes commanded the drums, dispensing his fills, accents, and bite-sized polyrhythms with a delicious, slowed-down blues quality. Ahmed Abdul-Malik presided over the bass, providing just-off-the-beat synchronicity with Monk’s distinctly timed blocks of chords, a yeoman’s feat of musical symbiosis. Mighty Johnny Griffin blew tenor. That man could flat out blow, but he was a thinking-player’s blower, if you will. His tenor brawn wasn’t as beefy, say, as that of Coltrane in full fury, but it was up there with Hank Mobley’s, and he thought as progressively, at times, as an altoist like Paul Desmond did in his work with Dave Brubeck’s quartet.
This was beyond exciting to me. I still think that the version of “Blue Monk” on that record is the purest expression of the blues in all of jazz. The blues was Monk’s secret weapon; granted, he contorted it, reworked its structures every bit as much as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie did when they were launching it toward the high heavens like a rocket ship, but blues was Monk’s terra firma. It just so happened that his terra firma was up in the air, and he was attached to it upside down.
A number of years ago, Monk’s gig with Coltrane from Carnegie Hall in 1957 was released; it may be the best live jazz album ever. Monk was everything to Coltrane, much as multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy later would be, a kind of artistic conscience, prophet, and directive dispenser. Coltrane had made his mark in Miles Davis’s first great quintet, but his head was racing ahead of his horn. The hard bop medium—even within the ultra-artful, highly stylized expressions of the Davis band—could not hold him. Monk gave him a new way of thinking, of hearing, of working within silences, even, to draw a power that dealt with a fluidity of ideas beyond riff, lick, extended chorus. These ideas were basically harmonic in nature, the understanding that, paradoxically, a musical road could get you from point A to point B more powerfully if you understood that stopping along the way—at the right places—would hasten your journey into the hearts and heads of your listeners.
But I always return to Thelonious in Action. You cannot go awry with any live Monk album. There are a lot of them, so one never lacks for options. But there is something, to me, about sitting in that club—or virtually sitting in it, transported the moment eyes close—and experiencing what I’m sure was a typical Monk gig: You experienced a ready slew of pleasant surprises any time you heard him. He made you better if you were in his band, because you always had to be so actively engaged with what what his songs might do next, in that context of their latest evening, which is like a form of extemporization that draws as much on life, as it doers on the accepted precepts of jazz. Then again, that is probably jazz’s point, in some degree, at its highest level. For with Monk, never let it be said that the journey from A to B did not require all involved—eccentric genius pianist, brilliant group members, excited listener—to ascend to a peak that would better show where we were all going.