Why Thelonious Monk?

Never before has the music of a particular artist taught me more about myself. Maybe more importantly, that it is OK to be myself.

Two years ago, I began a “journey” studying the music of Thelonious Monk. I was talking with my good friend Steve Peplin, who was in the midst of an intense study of Monk’s music himself. He was thinking of putting a group together to perform only Monk compositions. While preparing for the gig with Steve, I quickly realized I only knew a handful of Monk tunes – the ones that everyone knows/calls at jam sessions (Well You Needn’t, Blue Monk, Straight, No Chaser, etc). I remember the gig vividly, and I remember trying to play “Think of One”, having never played it before – maybe, having never even heard it before .

I remember having the feeling that the composition led me into different melodic and rhythmic directions. Directions I might not have otherwise chosen. I also remember feeling like whatever I decided to play, would fit – free, blues, fast, slow, spacious, angular. It intrigued me, and the adventure began. It led me to explore other artists who found inspiration in Monk’s compositions such as: Steve Lacy, Barry Harris, Don Cherry, Alexander Von Schlippenbach, Bud Powell, Jason Moran, Sonny Rollins, Ethan Iverson (his writings on the topic of Monk are detailed, read more here > Do the Math), among many others. One of the things I started to do was analyze how others approached improvising over those difficult harmonies and forms.

Steve Lacy’s response, when asked the question “Why just Monk’s music?”

“Well, it had a certain consistency to it. I wanted to see the proportions of the whole thing and to check out the consistency of the language. It was just there and nobody was doing anything with it. There were all these interesting tunes that he had just recorded once years ago and he wasn’t even playing them himself. So, it excited me a lot that there was this body of music. I found it the most interesting repertoire around, and it fitted my horn and my personality. It was a challenge and I was just wild over it. I wanted to learn all those tunes because I wanted to play in the structures. I didn’t even know why – I didn’t have a why – it was just love, interest. I just got into them gradually, one or two, then I’d see three more, then there was another dozen, and it just went on and on. Then I had to go back to the first ones and reconsider them, and I’d find I was doing something wrong and correct that and…It was just a long school. Then I met Roswell Rudd in the ’60s and he joined me because he was wild in that way too. He helped me learn a lot of the ones I didn’t know and vice versa. We collaborated and practiced together and we formed this group and played just that stuff. Because it was a way of going through something to get to something else. We knew there was something on the other side, and we wanted to go through it to see what was there and how it would be after we’d gone through it.”
– Steve Lacy, interviewed by Martin Davidson, Into Jazz (1974)

I decided to ask “Why is it important to study the music of Thelonious Monk”? I got some great responses – some simple some complex. Some clear, some cryptic. Some serious, some funny. Several themes emerged: melody, originality, language, composition, honesty, “realness”, organic, individuality, exploration, & humanity. Please enjoy reading the responses I’ve received on this important topic.

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“1. The importance of memorable melody in composition.
2. It’s one of the harmonic blueprints for modern jazz composition. He didn’t need more than 32 bars (most of the time) to create something of depth.”
– Tim Whalen, pianist (Washington DC)

“Especially in an era when many bebop improvisors are trained to play off scalar/harmonic progressions regardless of the composition, it is important to address Monk’s approach to playing his compositions, in that he expected performers to play the tunes (even while improvising), rather than regurgitating licks and patterns that happen to fit a chord.”
– Jay Mollerskov, guitarist (Milwaukee, WI)

“Maybe his importance in context of bebop, compared to the density of that language overall, Monk was much more sparse. Something of a counter-force or balance to the style, among his other contributions… Obviously in his originality in general, and the emphasis on sense of humor. Has anyone ever matched the uniqueness of his approach since?”
– Brian Ritter, drummer (Las Vegas, NV)

“Hard to answer. He’s such an iconoclast, and very little of his playing style has become part of the mainstream language. I feel like his compositions have made a much more immediate impact on other composers, than his piano playing on other pianists. When most pianists “play like Monk”, it’s pretty superficial. Chick is the only modern pianist who I enjoy hearing play Monk, he gets it. But lots of players play his tunes, and they often miss the vibe completely. We should all study Monk’s tunes because most are part of the standard rep now and so we don’t fuck them up. Also, he’s great. He is a rare example of how to play within a style without actually playing any of that style’s language. Huge, crucial part of the bebop scene and played with all the greats, without really playing anything resembling bop.”
– Johannes Wallmann, pianist (Madison, WI)

“Monk’s music is extremely important to study. His style of composition alone affected generations of players that came after him. Studying his music helps us get an insight into the type of human he was. It also remind me personally that there shouldn’t be limits to composing.”
– Marquis Hill, trumpeter (Chicago, IL)

“Monk was an innovator with respect to jazz composition and harmonic language. Monk’s music is a necessary part of any jazz improvisor’s repertoire.”
– Dave Stoler, pianist (Madison, WI)

“His compositions challenge dissonance in a unique way. He doesn’t necessarily pick an “ugly” note, but he’ll choose something that sounds out of place… but the ear accepts it, makes you think what’s a good sound and what’s not.”
– Mitch Shiner, drummer/vibist (Indianapolis, IN)

“Melody! His awkward, sometimes ugly, yet exact melodies have taught us to see and hear beauty in a different way than we did before we heard his music. He really developed a unique “Monk” sound, though widespread recognition of this certainly has come posthumously. Also, the music has just become part of our lexicon. Not absorbing Monk as a jazz musician would be like saying, I want to learn to speak Mandarin but I’m not gonna learn any verbs. No can do.”
– Steve Einerson, pianist (New York, NY)

“It advances your conception of what a melody can be and it gives a different perspective on harmonic timing and motion.”
– Tim Ipsen, bassist (Chicago, IL)

“His sense of swing, his sense of harmony, and his musical honesty and ‘realness’. Dedication to his vision – unbending aesthetic. Possibly the first abstractionist/restructuralist/post-modernist in jazz.”
– Luke Polipnick, guitarist (Omaha, NE)

“His use of altered dominant chords and extensions in a melodic way without using the motif of the song. Each tune has a unique melody that is beautiful and it swings… you tap your feet or snap your fingers. Its very organic and human, and his ballads are poignant.”
– Jeff Morrison, saxophonist (Chicago, IL)

“It will expand your mind and make all your music better.”
– Dan Trudell, pianist/organist (Nippersink, WI)

“His style of composing had a very individualistic quality that was his own. He also evolved stylistically… and lots of artists do. Listen to his late 40’s recordings and he even sounded like Teddy Wilson. We all grow and Monk was a case for us to learn from.”
– Zev Feldman, Resonance Records (Los Angeles, CA)

“His music is important to me because his sound has both individualism and precedence. An example of his individualism is the “Bird and Diz” recording he is on. Certainly one of his earliest recordings – he is fully formed, individual and yet stride for stride with the giants of his generation on their seminal work. He is unflustered by his company and purely himself.

I think his precedence is more apparent when viewing him within the tradition of stride pianists… and hearing him in the context of this lineage makes his mastery more inescapable. He has always been thought of more as a composer than pianist. But hearing these as stride vignettes surely also places him at the tail end of the stride masters’ glory days and he should be properly regarded as a piano innovator as well as a composition master.
– John Christensen, bassist (Madison, WI)

“Monk was a realist. Not into illusions. His tunes were family. He never abandoned them like Charlie did. He named them with care. Charlie didn’t even name his tunes. Coltrane said Monk was a musical architect of the highest order. His musical priorities were as follows: motivic development and voice leading. He didn’t care about fame. It was more about bringing home some bread for his family.”
– Steve Peplin, guitarist (Milwaukee, WI)

“Coltrane. Roy Haynes’ playing on the “Five Spot” recordings with Trane was super important for me too. Heard that as a freshman in college and it changed my focus a bit. The first tune is Trinkle Tinkle. Roy plays a sick solo. He’s playing the form. Monk cuts him off like one or two bars early, which is funny.”
– Quin Kirchner, drummer (Chicago, IL)

“Two reasons? I’ll quote Ornette’s great title, “Mind and Time”.
Well, to me he runs the gamut as a composer: some tunes of his are pretty difficult (Brilliant Corners, Skippy, Trinkle Tinkle) – others very simple to play (Let’s Cool One, Bemsha Swing, Friday the 13th) but with their own challenges. How many ballad compositions came out of the boppers? Bud Powell, Tadd Dameron, Gil Fuller, but especially Monk! Barry Harris said his time was second to none.

I like the analysis of his solo on “I Should Care” in the Tenzer and Roeder book where they point out that he embodied the bop but extended it in such an individual way. That essay puts him in historical perspective, but doesn’t go into his prepared compositions at all (his solos are spontaneous composition). Intriguing, to me, how great Bud Powell was in interpreting Monk’s music despite their totally different pianistics. ‘Round Midnight from BP with Bird in 1949 (I think) is just ridiculous.

Someone said Johnny Griffin was the only horn player he ever had who didn’t learn anything from him – I thats a bit unfair to Johnny Griffin, but his effect on other horn players and his influence on them was undeniable. He sounded so right with Coltrane! Rollins! Steve Lacy! and of course Rouse. Then the records with Clark Terry and Gerry Mulligan! (of course Coltrane sounded incredible with Cecil Taylor too.)”
– Barry Velleman, pianist (Boston, MA)

“It is based on the tradition but very clearly shows his departure from the norm.”
– Sam Neufeld, trumpeter (Miami, FL)

“Monk’s music and playing style embody the spirit of exploration and embrace personal discovery along the journey.”
– Andrew Green, drummer (Chicago, IL)

“He’s heavily connected to the tradition but with a completely original voice.”
– Dave Miller, guitarist (New York, NY)

“It’s so unique to the jazz idiom. His music is an extension of Ellington. I also think specifically how he used dominant 7th chords is important to check out.”
– Rick Germanson, pianist (New York, NY)

“His melodic and rhythmic motifs.”
– Pete Zimmer, drummer (New York, NY)

“Individuality – to this day, he created his own sound compositionally and in playing that is so impactful people still try to emulate it. Also, his music has so much intricacy and depth but I still find it very easy to listen to and enjoy. He connects with people.”
– Kenny Reichert, guitarist (Milwaukee, WI)

“Learning to value melody, patience. Not every solo has to reach a climax. Its ok to play simple ideas if you mean it.”
– Dustin Laurenzi, saxophonist (Chicago, IL)

“He was one of the innovators of the bebop language, and his solos not only push the music forward, but also embrace the stride piano sound of his youth. Monk put to use the whole tone scale, which permeates his music along with the Dominant7#5 alterations. The main reason though, is that his music is simply fun to play, and I feel like I’m a child just having a blast.”
– Jeremy Cunningham, drummer (Chicago, IL)

“It’s all about the melody! It teaches you to play as a group! The Rhythm! It contains the dance within it!”
– Devin Drobka, drummer (Milwaukee, WI)

“Joyful, captures the unique human spirit, strength and clarity of rhythm.”
– Andrew Trim, guitarist (Chicago, IL)

“To see the end of what self-discovery is, and how liberated he was through his unique discovery of himself.”
– Philip Dizack, trumpeter (New York, NY)

“1. The most advanced yet melodic, catchy material in jazz music.
2. The totally integrated way he used his melodic material to construct his improvisations
3. His singular personality that comes through clearly in his music.”
– Tony Barba, saxophonist (Madison, WI)

“I see Monk’s turning the phrase “always know” into its punning twin “all ways know” as a key to his musical approach and philosophy. It may be also a key to why he is important to study.

He would often take a musical phrase and tear it open with a big interval jump that was part of a rhythmic assertion. So an odd phrase will jab your consciousness while making your body respond to the rhythm. So he allows our mind-body connection to experience new possibilities of truth. In other words, the process of studying how he puts together a musical idea or makes it striking or memorable, you may find fresh inlets to looking at things a different way, of knowing in different ways. There is an almost prismatic quality to his music, the way it was often turning and shifting so that you are compelled to turn and shift your mind and body to follow him.

Often the initial effect is almost comical, you might even laugh at the oddity of it. But a comic thought is one that looks at reality from a slightly skewed perspective and yet it is still looking at reality. So Monk’s notion of “all ways know” is an effort and technique to keep your mind open for all the possibilities. That may lead to an understanding of the hidden truth of your situation, a worldly issue, another person, or of an idea or dream you might be harboring. Like much great art, he gives us a fresh perspective on the world and, with Monk, you have a good time getting there.”
– Kevin Lynch, writer (Milwaukee, WI)

1. Master of harmony and rhythmic phrasing.
2. True individual voice of the era, and beyond.
3. Influenced melodic and rhythmic improvisation and composition to a future generation of musicians.
4. Complete honesty in his music making.

If you listen to Monk’s drummers (in particular Frankie Dunlop and Ben Riley), I believe you hear an even greater sense of melodic drumming (soloing and comping). I’m sure melodic inspired drumming was a criteria for Monk when choosing his drummers, but I can’t help but think Monk’s playing heightened that component in each of his drummers.”
– Dave Bayles, drummer (Milwaukee, WI)

“Pause for a moment and forget “the chords/voicings, the unorthodox technique.” His groove and sense of time is remarkable. That’s what stands out for me. Not speaking as a drummer, but a musician who digs the funk and swing of the masters.”
– Sam Monroe, drummer (Washington DC)