In conjunction with the release of Ken Burns' ten-part, 19-hour epic PBS documentary Jazz, Columbia issued 22 single-disc compilations devoted to jazz's most significant artists, as well as a five-disc historical summary. Since the individual compilations attempt to present balanced overviews of each artist's career, tracks from multiple labels have thankfully been licensed where appropriate. Accordingly, Thelonious Monk's volume draws from his early piano trio recordings with Blue Note and his expanded ensembles and solo explorations for Riverside and Columbia. Monk frequently re-recorded many of his now-standard compositions in different formats, so it's difficult to choose definitive versions; the compilers have wisely opted to present the full spectrum of arrangement approaches Monk employed over the course of his career. Not quite all of Monk's best-known pieces are here, but the vast majority are: "Well You Needn't," "Misterioso," "Epistrophy," "Straight, No Chaser," "Ruby, My Dear," and of course "'Round Midnight." There are also excellent supplementary choices like "Brilliant Corners," which was too complicated to really become a standard (and had to be pieced together from several studio takes because the musicians never quite got through it flawlessly). Monk made a tremendous amount of brilliant, harmonically quirky music over the course of his career, and Ken Burns Jazz makes an excellent entry point for the neophyte who wants to begin exploring what Monk was all about.
- Steve Huey (All Music Guide)
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Jazz is a music that celebrates individuality, and some of its greatest figures made their mark by rewriting the rules in the interest of self-expression. But there have been few jazz musicians as thoroughly individual as Thelonious Monk.
Monk was a member of jazz's first generation of modernists, the fiery young iconoclasts who arrived on the scene in the 1940s and whose music came to be called bebop. But his music was unorthodox even by bebop standards.
Alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and other high-profile beboppers were just as focused as Monk was on expanding the harmonic and rhythmic palette of jazz. But Parker and Gillespie were virtuosos, and indeed the aspect of bebop that first attracted attention was the technical mastery required to navigate its breakneck tempos and complex chord structures. Monk, on the other hand, had such an unusual approach to the piano that at first many people assumed that he simply couldn't play - or at least that his technique and musical knowledge were severely limited. He didn't bombard listeners with a flurry of sixteenth notes; in fact, in Monk's hands silence often spoke more eloquently than sound. His phrasing was irregular, often seemingly hesitant or even clumsy. The chords he played could be bracingly dissonant.
And he was stubborn. He settled on his highly personal approach as a young man and stuck with it throughout his career, regardless of changing fashions in jazz. As a result, his music gradually went from being widely regarded as too far-out for most listeners to being dismissed by many critics as old-fashioned. Two decades after his death in 1982 (and almost three decades after health problems led him to withdraw from the public arena), it is clear that it was neither: it was simply, as the title of one of his albums put it, Monk's music.
Monk's fellow musicians knew his name even before he had made a record. Some knew him as the house pianist at Minton's Playhouse, a Harlem nightclub where visiting musicians were encouraged to sit in. Many knew him for his compositions; even those who were skeptical about Monk as a pianist acknowledged that he was an exceptionally gifted writer. His "Well You Needn't," a jaunty riff tune enlivened by unusual harmonies, was a jam-session staple well before Monk recorded it in 1947. His melancholy ballad "'Round Midnight" was first recorded by trumpeter Cootie Williams's band in 1942 and quickly became a fixture of the jazz repertoire. (Monk himself would record it numerous times - occasionally, as it is heard here, without accompaniment)
Thelonious Monk was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, on October 10, 1917. But his family moved to New York City when he was four years old, and he always considered himself a New Yorker. His earliest influences were the so-called stride pianists who were a ubiquitous presence on the Harlem jazz scene of his youth. Although he would refract that influence through his own off-kilter sensibility, their intricate harmonies and pounding bass lines left a profound mark on his style.
That style was already so different by the early 1940s that the great tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins took some heat from his colleagues for hiring Monk. But Monk also had his disciples even then, who admired his melodicism, his rhythmic drive, and his ability to turn dissonance into something glorious - to create, in the words of one of his own song titles, ugly beauty. By the end of the decade he was leading his own group, recording for the enterprising Blue Note label, and garnering a devoted if relatively small legion of fans.
His following remained small for another decade, but that began to change when he secured a booking at the Five Spot on New York's Lower East Side in the summer of 1957. Leading a quartet with the promising but still relatively unknown John Coltrane on tenor saxophone - a quartet heard in this collection on one of Monk's most tender love songs, "Ruby, My Dear," and one of his most intricate lines, 'Trinkle, Trinkle" - Monk proved that his unique brand of challenging harmonies and a relentless beat could attract more than just a cult audience.
Less than two years later, Monk appeared at New York's Town Hall, leading a ten-piece ensemble through new arrangements of some of his best-known works. In 1962 his audience grew still larger when he signed a long-term contract with Columbia, the world's largest and most prestigious record company. In 1964, his status as an international celebrity was confirmed when his face appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
It would have been, difficult for any jazz musician to achieve much more than that in terms of recognition, and Monk didn't. It is generally agreed that he did not achieve much more after 1964 in artistic terms either. He wrote few new compositions, he broke no new musical ground, and his performances - at the helm of a quartet that since late 1958 had featured Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone - were often characterized as predictable. Meanwhile, new developments in jazz - the avant garde, jazz-rock fusion - contributed to the notion that Monk was yesterday's news. Further obscuring his importance was his low profile: he made few public appearances after 1972 and none at all after 1976.
But the truth about Monk, clearer than ever in hindsight, is that his playing was always so distinctive, his compositions so memorable, his sense of swing so strong, that even at his most predictable - even, for that matter, at his most uninspired - he gave his listeners something they could get nowhere else. To listen to Thelonious Monk is to hear the unmistakable sound of a musician being himself: taking what he needs from the jazz tradition, discarding what doesn't work for him, exulting in the sheer joy of making his music, his way.
-Peter Keepnews (may 2000)
- About The Film -
JAZZ, a film by Ken Burns, is a ten-part documentary premiering on Public Television in January of 2001 as a General Motors Mark of Excellence Presentation. The series revolves around the stories of such brilliant musicians and compelling personalities as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Artie Shaw, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan, Art Blakey, Ornette Coleman, and Miles Davis. Beginning with the birth of jazz at the dawn of the 20th century, the film presents the wide range of American cultural and historical events that interact directly with the music - among them the harsh racial polarization of the 1890s and early 20th century; the artistic and political ferment of the Harlem Renaissance; the exuberance of the Jazz Age; the Great Depression and the New Deal; the Second World War; the emergence of a youth culture in the 1950s and 1960s; the hope, anger, and expectations of the civil rights movement; and the search for identity and authenticity in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. JAZZ features on-camera observations from over 75 musicians, historians, writers, critics, and fans including Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Gary Giddins, Stanley Crouch, Margo Jefferson, Ossie Davis, Abbey Lincoln, Jackie McLean, Gerald Early, Artie Shaw, and Mercedes Ellington. The actor Keith David is the series narrator, and first person historical voices are read by Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew Broderick, James Naughton, Delroy Lindo, Studs Terkel, and Ann Duquesnay, among others.