Barry Harris on the importance of Thelonious Monk


Barry Harris, piano

"I tell some of the young kids in order to be a jazz musician you have to play a Monk song. You don't play a Monk song, I feel there's something funny about you being a jazz musician. I had to tell one piano player that, he was in Washington. We had to do this Monk thing...he plays one and he had little bits of Monk in there, you know. It was quite odd... because Monk wrote so many pretty songs. I tell you. What's this one?..."

Light Blue, Thelonious Monk
Pannonica, Thelonious Monk

"On the last A, Jon Hendricks said...
Delicate things such as butterfly wings
poets can't describe, though they try
Love played a tune, when she stepped from her cocoon... Pannonica, my lovely, Pannonica my butterfly."

- Barry Harris

FullSizeRender (1)

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.Read more