Thelonious Monk (1917–1982) was a man of many hats — literally. A look at the covers for some of his most beloved albums — The Unique Thelonious Monk, Monk’s Music, Thelonious Alone in San Francisco, Monk’s Dream, It’s Monk Time, Underground, and, most recently, the long-awaited release of his soundtrack to Roger Vadim’s controversial 1960 French film Les Liaisons Dangereuses — reveal all you need to know about the wide variety of lids that graced his brilliant brain throughout his four decades of active duty.
Yet while Monk’s penchant for headgear was indeed a fickle affair, the pioneering melodicism and improvisational elegance with which the New York City–bred genius played the baby grand remained a constant, defining factor — from the time he helped shape the concept of bebop during the Second World War as the house piano man at Minton’s Playhouse, to his final tour, in 1971. There have been nearly fifty Monk albums available on eight different record labels since he made his debut on Blue Note in 1947, and each LP reveals a different layer of the way his hands molded the very concept of modern jazz — one that continues to evolve today. “A note can be as small as a pin or as big as the world,” Monk once told saxophonist Steve Lacy, some time in 1960. “It depends on your imagination.”
During what would have been the week of Monk’s one hundredth birthday, a diverse spectrum of jazz pianists offered recollections on Monk’s legacy to the Voice. Their responses, which have been condensed and edited for clarity, are presented below.
Wayne Horvitz, a key member of the New York City downtown-jazz scene of the Eighties and Nineties who served in John Zorn’s Naked City, among other groups:
The first record I ever bought was a Howlin’ Wolf record; it was the iconic one with the rocking chair, with “Spoonful” and “Wang Dang Doodle.” The first jazz record I ever bought was Monk’s Music, the one with Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins. I’d like to say I had superb taste, but actually I just thought I should check out “jazz,” and I liked the cover. Needless to say, I lucked out. Not only was the music great, but I think there was some critical aspects of the music that affected everything I came to think and love about jazz, about improvising at the piano, about composing, and ultimately about music. The whole record starts with a hymn: “Abide With Me.” I didn’t know enough about jazz to realize that wasn’t normal. And then there was Monk’s solo. It still blows my mind every single time, maybe more each time I hear it. This is the best possible example of “playing the song — not the changes.” It’s just brilliant on every possible level.
Ran Blake, pioneering pianist, composer, and educator who debuted fifty-five years ago on RCA Victor with The Newest Sound Around and helped develop the idea of “Third Stream” music, a fusion of jazz and classical:
I discovered Thelonious Monk in 1947 while passing by Music in the Round, a local record store in Springfield, Massachusetts, owned by Ben Kalman. I was in seventh grade at the time and into spirituals, gospel, and film noir. Claude Debussy, Mahalia Jackson, and Roy Webb were my main go-tos. Hearing Monk’s piano playing was an emotional experience. It brought me combustible joy, out-of-this-world trips, and a strong feeling for the past and the future. Monk’s left hand was the Earth and yesterday, and his clashing right hand was Bartók, instability, and the injustice of the current day. I became a fanatic [about] finding his records, because I would wear them out every month and needed new copies. (That sounds unrealistic with your new iPhones, but it was true of the time.) Monk’s touch, interchangeability, assertive quality, and plot changes were what influenced me the most, and it would be for listeners to [judge] if I’ve absorbed any of that or not. He was my hero and in a way the only God-like pianist I’ve ever known and had the pleasure to spend time with.
He was unique, and so courageous to write like that. He was so completely different from the guys of his generation: Bird, Dizzy, Bud Powell. When those guys wrote tunes, they all sounded like it was coming from the same thing. They’re very boppy and line-oriented. But Monk’s stuff was unique even among those giants. And the heat that he took for being so different at the time — critics didn’t get him at all until later on in his life, but musicians definitely got him. They would come to his house and look over his shoulder, and he was always willing to share and talk music. He was doing modal a good ten years before Kind of Blue. There wasn’t anyone like him.
Johnny O’Neal, Detroit-born neo-bop pianist whose new album, In the Moment, is out now on Smoke Sessions Records:
My first introduction to Monk was when my dad played “ ’Round Midnight.” Of course, it made such an impact on my musicality. And also, we share the same birthday, October 10. I never heard Monk live in concert, but I got to meet him. Barry Harris told me that if I were ever to come to New York, he would have a surprise for me. In 1979, I finally went to New York, and I met up with Barry. I had no idea what the surprise was. He took me over to Jersey. He said, “Monk, I want you to hear this young man play the piano.” And we sat and hung out all afternoon. He played for me as well. We sat on the bench and played together. Barry wanted Monk to hear me play. In my opinion, Monk was the most influential composer of the twentieth century — harmonically, rhythmically, etc. — more complex and more intricate than any other.
Marta Sanchez, Madrid-born, New York City–based pianist whose second album as leader, Partenika, is out now on Fresh Sound Records:
I didn’t get in touch with Monk’s music until I started getting interested in jazz during my teens. My first jazz teacher loved to play Monk’s compositions. I used to do a weekly session with friends just to learn Monk’s tunes, and from the very beginning I realized that playing and improvising over his music required a different approach, more connected with the written material, and with the melody and rhythm of the song. But while I was in love with his compositions from the beginning, it took me a bit longer to appreciate his playing. I came from the classical word and I felt attracted either to really fluent bop players like Wynton Kelly or Red Garland or to players like Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, or Brad Mehldau. I guess it was easier for me to understand their playing, because it is more connected with the way of playing in classical music. It was when I started appreciating jazz in a deeper way, and when I heard his solo piano record, that I fell in love with Thelonious’s playing. His way of playing solo piano, simple but at the same time super-sophisticated in his voicings and lines, and so swinging, giving to every note so much meaning and weight, with an almost nonexistent use of the sostenuto pedal, made this album one of my favorite solo piano albums ever. I never had the chance to see him live, but some of his recordings have been in my playlist for years. I had a period where I wrote tunes trying to imitate Monk’s style, [but] now I try to translate to my music his search for the unexpected, his unique approach to improvisation and composition, his search for new sounds and intricate rhythms while keeping cantabile melodies.
Joey Alexander, Grammy-nominated fourteen-year-old piano prodigy releasing his latest album, Joey.Monk.Live!, in homage to his lifelong hero; also honoring the Monk centennial with a one-night-only show tonight at the Jazz Standard:
Sometimes, when I’m just practicing, playing something else, new melodic and rhythmic ideas come to me and I realize I’m actually starting to compose a song. I think writing strong tunes comes from listening to so much music from composers and artists I like. I would say that Monk has had the greatest influence on me. Hearing his pieces so many times had a great impact on me and inspired me to write my own pieces. I actually find it harder to interpret other people’s songs than write my own, because I have to figure out and feel what the song is about and find a way to make it my own. Monk taught me to groove, bounce, understand space, be patient, be simple, sometimes be mysterious but, most of all, to be joyful. In my arrangements, I try to stay true to the essence of his music — to treat it with the highest level of respect. Monk’s music is the essence of beauty.
Cat Toren, Brooklyn-based improviser and composer who will be paying tribute to Monk tonight in her native Vancouver, British Columbia, at Frankie’s Jazz Club:
I was first introduced to Monk’s music as a teenager when a family friend gave me Ken Burns’s Thelonious Monk compilation CD. I was a young pianist just getting into jazz. Word on the street said Monk was a genius, and the music solidified that sentiment for me. My favorite track was “Trinkle Tinkle”; I would sing along with it on the way to school. Soon thereafter I inherited some vinyl including Misterioso; Straight, No Chaser; Two Hours With Thelonious, and more. It was only later I realized how mixed reviews were during his career. Isn’t that so often the way? Playing Monk tunes taught me the importance of hearing the melody throughout the whole piece, blowing and all. That’s one of the most fun aspects of playing over Monk tunes — you’re going off somewhere and all of a sudden you’re hooking up with the folks on a quirk found inside that melody. Everything’s such a gem. Monk taught me to mean what you play, play what you mean. You do you.
Brian Charette, Grammy-nominated jazz organist and pianist who has performed with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Chaka Khan, and Lou Donaldson:
My first Monk album I ever heard was Monk’s Dream, when I was in college. I really liked the tunes even though I have to admit I was and still am a little mystified by his piano playing. The thing I liked most about Monk was that he was unlike anyone I had ever heard. My favorite quote from Monk is, “A genius is the one most like himself.” I play mostly Hammond organ and I feel like I’m kind of [on the outside], so I can really relate to Monk’s individualism. He showed me that it’s OK to not follow the pack.
Matthew Shipp, onetime member of the legendary David S. Ware Quartet who has been redefining the role of jazz piano in the avant-garde world for nearly thirty years:
Monk’s way into my life was through my parents. I am from Wilmington, Delaware. Monk had been arrested in Delaware and a family friend was retained to be Monk’s lawyer during this incident. My parents got to briefly meet him through the family friend. My parents had been jazz fans [previously] but they developed a curiosity for Monk’s eccentric ways, and my mother seemed to have an acute understanding of his place as an idiosyncratic composer even though it was not exactly her type of jazz. I was introduced to Monk’s music basically through my mom talking about the weird man who played piano in his own way. I was one to read through jazz-history books and listen to what they said, and Monk seemed to have a unique place based on the fact that he honed his own style and sounded like no one else, and also because he was a founding father of the bebop era, although he never fell into the clichés of that idiom. I was a Coltrane devotee, and in the book Chasin’ the Trane, Coltrane has a quote about Monk being an architect of music on the highest level. Can’t remember the exact quote, but coming from Coltrane it made a big impact on me. I consider Monk the father of what I call the black mystery school of piano — which is a parallel movement to the more so-called proper and maybe even “bourgeois” style of, say, someone like Oscar Peterson. Other people who are in this black mystery school and who learned from Monk’s example are Mal Waldron, Randy Weston, Cecil Taylor, and Andrew Hill. Of course, Monk’s impact is in the belief and commitment to his own language, and the focus to follow that belief to the bitter end no matter what.
Jamie Saft, Kerhonkson, New York–based improviser and composer whose excellent new trio album, Loneliness Road, features vocals by Iggy Pop:
I came up as a youth on a steady diet of loud electric music: Dylan, AC/DC, Sabbath, Hendrix. Very little of the music I listened to featured the acoustic piano. Fortunately, early in my high school years, a close friend’s father turned me on to his LP of Monk’s Dream. This record stopped me dead in my tracks. This music was tough like Hendrix and revolved around the piano! Monk’s sound really leapt out of the speakers — percussive but deeply constructed from the purest melody. Monk’s approach to manipulating song form forever changed my idea of what was possible in music. Monk seemed to quickly access mystical states of consciousness through the music in a way similar to rock and heavy music. I was forever hooked.
Jeff Levenson, producer of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Competition, now celebrating its thirtieth year:
I never heard Monk live. Interestingly enough, I came to him through a project involving Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. As a child I was not steeped in Monk’s music. What I came to appreciate is that Monk suffered from clinical mental illness, the symptoms of which were seen but not completely understood. The usual adjectives — “quirky,” “idiosyncratic,” “weird” — were accepted synonyms for his dysfunction. His response to this condition included creating a body of music that made perfect sense for the emotional place he lived in: angular, with rhythmic accents and temporal displacements, all possessing advanced, interior logic. That musical universe, designed to accommodate his own view of the world, resonated mightily with others and became foundational to the development of the art.
Kevin Hays, American pianist whose new duo album with guitarist Lionel Loueke is out now on Newvelle Records:
I first started checking out Monk during high school. I think the first record I heard was Solo Monk. I absolutely fell in love with his sound at the piano, his rhythm and compositions. Monk’s sound and approach to the piano was so personal and deep. There was never any doubt who you were listening to or the conviction behind it.
Frank Kimbrough, New York–based improvising pianist with a most unique perspective behind the baby grand, as heard on his wonderful 2016 solo work, Solstice:
When I first heard Monk’s music as a young person, I didn’t get it — it sounded wrong to me. I came from a “classical” background and thought he couldn’t play, but I kept listening. Then one day it hit me: His music is miraculous, one of a kind, off-kilter, and completely original, with a remarkable specificity baked into each composition. I came to New York City from Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1981, and four months later, back in Washington for a gig, I was having breakfast with a friend when we heard three of Monk’s compositions played in a row on WPFW. I turned to my friend and said, “Monk’s gone.” Then the selections were announced along with news of Monk’s passing. Later that day, I went to Union Station to get the train back to New York. I felt an obligation as a jazz pianist (albeit a young, inexperienced one) to pay my respects at his memorial at St. Peter’s. That day, seeing and hearing so many great musicians demonstrate their love and respect for Monk, his music, and his family, I realized in a very real way that jazz musicians and listeners are a close-knit community. It was a life-changing day, and an affirmation of what it means to play this music.
Yoko Miwa, Boston-bred pianist and Yamaha artist currently residing in New York City and appearing regularly at the Blue Note Jazz Club:
When I first got into jazz, everybody kept telling me, I have to check out Monk. The first time I heard him I really didn’t get it, but as I continued to listen I began to realize his true genius. He was a master of rhythm and created his own sound and voice on the piano. Monk lived in the bebop era and wrote his own tunes that sounded very different from the other legends at that time. He didn’t follow the rules, and that’s what made him so unique. Now in modern day his mantra lives on, and I can safely say it would be impossible to be a jazz pianist and not be influenced in some way by Thelonious Monk.
Fred Hersch, Cincinnati-born pianist and educator whose new solo album, Open Book, is out now on Palmetto Records:
I was first introduced to Monk’s music in a late-night jazz coffeehouse in Cincinnati in 1973. This exposure was enhanced by high-quality hashish and fine cognac. I marveled not just at the notes he played, but how he was able to create space around the notes with a chiseled sound and an idiosyncratic pianistic vocabulary. I honor him year-round — every concert I play has a Monk tune in it, usually as the closer. I try not to imitate him (I would come off as the loser for sure) but I endeavor to capture his spirit of melodic inventiveness and use of space, and I try to play off of the specific musical DNA of each tune. His many harmonic and rhythmic puzzles are challenging and always fun to play.
Laszlo Gardony, Hungarian neo-bop pianist whose new solo album, Serious Play, is out now on Sunnyside Records:
I first heard Monk’s “ ’Round Midnight” in jazz-history class at the Béla Bartók Conservatory. As a young musician, I was impressed and surprised at how many different sets of harmonies I could hear on it, depending on my mood and inspiration. It was one of the first jazz songs (besides “Stella by Starlight”) in which I experienced how both pliable and strong a great standard can be. It inspired me to reimagine standards — co-habit them with their composers — a process which became as important in developing my compositional style as my writing original music was.
Satoko Fujii, Japanese avant-garde pianist and accordionist with a new album, Live at the Jazz Room Cortez, out this fall on the Cortez Sound label:
I have always loved Monk’s music because it is so unique and free. His piano playing still sounds completely fresh and new today. I think that’s because he didn’t play in any one style. His compositions are very beautiful and have such a strong and distinctive voice. Even though I love his music, I rarely play his pieces because they sound so good with him playing. His approach has encouraged me to make my own music out of my voice.
Frank Carlberg, pianist and composer whose new album with his Large Ensemble, Monk Dreams, Hallucinations and Nightmares, draws inspiration from the works of Monk:
Thelonious Monk is one of the greatest American artists of all time. No question. Consequently he is central to many of the developments in jazz. While I was still a youngster, hearing Monk for the first time on a recording (Solo Monk) was a revelation. Here is music by a musician clearly informed by his predecessors (James P. Johnson and Duke Ellington, as I was to realize later), yet with a distinctly personal expression. His music can be light and playful (“Dinah”), majestic (“Ruby, My Dear”), humorous (“These Foolish Things”), dark and deep (“I Should Care”), while retaining the unmistakable sound that is Monk. His influence on later generations is enormous. He is a masterful composer of beautifully crafted songs that provide fertile material for the improviser, engendering freedom. Personally, Monk’s music means the world to me. I do not aim to re-create what he has done, but to use his music as inspiration (both concretely and abstractly) to help find my own voice and expression. Monk’s uncompromising dedication to his own art also serves as a great model for a life in music well spent.