© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“He dealt in phrases with odd shapes, placed into odd niches on the bar line, stressed in odd places. Melodically, he created tight, stark nuggets that served as seeds for complete musical statements once cultivated through his surprising use of modulation and accent. Monk's strong, aggressive touch produced tones of hornlike boldness on the piano, and his rhythmic patience highlighted the rich overtones this attack produced.
When he worked with horns, this tonal character carried over to the rough-edged ensembles he preferred to bebop's characteristic unison lines. And there was Monk's dense and pungent harmonic palette, which Andre Hodeir likened to an acid bath when applied to popular material. These various techniques functioned so integrally as to seem inseparable.
These attributes of Monk’s music, so familiar to us now and more central to the ongoing evolution of Jazz with each passing day, took an uncommonly long time for the public to grasp.”
- Bob Blumenthal, Jazz writer, columnist and critic
During the many years that he wrote about Jazz for The Boston Globe, CD Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Downbeat and numerous other publications, Grammy-Award winning author, columnist and critic Bob Blumenthal became one of my most consistent teachers about all-things-Jazz
For his long affiliation with it and studied application of it, Bob knows the music.
Equally important is his ability to communicate this knowledge and awareness in a writing style that is clear, cogent and concise.
Bob’s a mensch and a mentor.
My first awareness of Thelonious Monk’s music was based on the LPs he recorded for Orrin Keepnews at Riverside Records from approximately 1955-1960. The significance of these recordings was that they helped make the Jazz public of that period aware of Monk’s genius, such that Thelonious career was set on a path that would lead to fame and fortune.
The Riverside albums were a renaissance of sorts for Monk who, although he was one of the originators of modern Jazz along with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Kenny Clarke and others from the Minton's Playhouse days of the early 1940’s, had largely become a forgotten man by the end of that decade.
In 1994, Blue Note Records issued a boxed set of the music that Thelonious had recorded for the label under his own name and as sideman on a 1957 date with Sonny Rollins as the leader. The set also includes the five tracks that were recorded by John Coltrane's wife Naima at the Five Spot in NYC during Coltrane's tenure with Monk's quartet in 1958.
This reissued set provided a sort of missing link in my quest to appreciate the early years of Monk’s music.
And if that wasn’t enough, wouldn’t you know that the insert notes to the four CD’s that make up Thelonious Monk: The Complete Blue Note Recordings [CDP 7243 8 30363 2 5] were written by none other than … you guessed it … Bob Blumenthal.
Bob has kindly granted the editorial staff at JazzProfiles permission to use the introductory portion of his Blue Note annotations on these pages.
© - Bob Blumenthal, copyright protected, all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.
“Thelonious Sphere Monk inherited his striking name, yet it is doubtful that the collective energy of all the slogan-makers could have devised a more appropriate appellation. Never has a moniker so perfectly reflected someone's music. "Thelonious" announces imposing complexity and originality with roots in tradition, "Monk" signals abrupt angularity, and the rhythmic impact of the two in juxtaposition is indelible and unique. The rich internal detail was frequently lost on others in the past, who tended to fashion the first name as "Thelonius," mirroring the confusion that surrounded Monk's music (fortunately, misunderstandings of both types have diminished over time). Most revealing of all, though, is "Sphere," with its intimations of rounded, three-dimensional completeness, of a self-contained planet pursuing its own course in the musical universe.
That sense of fullness, together with Monk's brilliant use of sound, silence, dissonance, rhythmic surprise and melodic cogency, marked the music in this collection from its initial appearance as something exceptional. For many, musicians as well as listeners, it was also somewhat undecipherable when first released on a series of 78 rpm records taken from the six sessions that form the bulk of this collection. At the time, Monk was considered the jazz world's primary enigma, the farthest out of the far out. He was said to be one of the fountainheads of bebop, its "high priest"; yet his music did not sound like bebop. The breathless, arpeggio-driven virtuosity of bop that was already becoming cliche when Monk recorded his first sessions as a leader was replaced in his music by a concept of space that was poetic. He dealt in phrases with odd shapes, placed into odd niches on the bar line, stressed in odd places. Melodically, he created tight, stark nuggets that served as seeds for complete musical statements once cultivated through his surprising use of modulation and accent. Monk's strong, aggressive touch produced tones of hornlike boldness on the piano, and his rhythmic patience highlighted the rich overtones this attack produced. When he worked with horns, this tonal character carried over to the rough-edged ensembles he preferred to bebop's characteristic unison lines. And there was Monk's dense and pungent harmonic palette, which Andre Hodeir likened to an acid bath when applied to popular material. These various techniques functioned so integrally as to seem inseparable.
These attributes of Monk’s music, so familiar to us now and more central to the ongoing evolution of Jazz with each passing day, took an uncommonly long time for the public to grasp The uniqueness of his music was reinforced by the eccentricities of his personality. He may have been the "genius of modern music," as Blue Note proclaimed when it first reissued some of the enclosed performances on 10-inch IPs in the early '50s; but to many he was a mad genius, given to wearing odd hats and sunglasses and with what his wife Nellie once described as a "marvelous sense of withdrawal." When he cut his first session as a leader in October 1947, he was five days past his 30th birthday, a point at which too many of the music's innovators had exhausted both their creative and biological spans. By the time of his sixth and final Blue Note date as a leader in 1952, he was nearly 35 and, thanks to public indifference and his willingness to take a drug possession rap for a friend, seemingly even further from the acclaim that would put him on the cover of Time Magazine little more than a decade later and elevate him still further in the years following his death in 1982.
Of course, Monk was nothing if not patient. At the time of his first Blue Note session, he had been a key figure in the emergence of the modern style for years; yet all he had to show for his efforts on record were four titles cut in 1944 with Coleman Hawkins and some samples of the already legendary jam sessions at Minton's taped at the club and issued under Charlie Christian's name. As a composer he fared better, with Hawkins, Cootie Williams, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke and Bud Powell already having introduced several of his most famous compositions. The three sessions he led for Blue Note in a span of 38 days in 1947, which included 10 of his compositions, might be viewed as one of the greatest bursts of creative energy in history if Monk had not been waiting to unleash this brilliant music for a decade. On record at least, he began fully formed and more than ready.
Monk was born on October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina and was named after his father. (His son, the drummer T. S. Monk, is actually Monk III.) His family moved to New York City in 1923, occupying a house on West 63rd Street in the San Juan Hill neighborhood that would remain Monk's home for much of his life. His musical career began typically enough for an African-American youth of the time: piano lessons at 11, rent parties and amateur contests three years later, and regular work in church, where he accompanied his mother. Despite excelling in math and science at Stuyvesant High School, Monk dropped out in 1934 to accompany an evangelist on a tour that ultimately took him to the Midwest. Mary Lou Williams, one of his earliest champions, heard him at the time and later reported that he displayed a fluid swing piano technique, with touches of Teddy Wilson.
Back in New York by 1936, Monk studied briefly at Juilliard and began taking the diverse gigs that are a young musician's lot. He also quickly immersed himself in the Harlem after-hours scene, landing a job in the house rhythm section at Minton's Playhouse in 1940. This was the period during which young musicians began developing a more technically advanced approach that went beyond the conventions of swing music, in clubs like Minton's and Monroe's Uptown House. At Minton's, Monk and his rhythm section mate Kenny Clarke jammed with such sympathetic contemporaries as Charlie Christian, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
The pianist also began introducing his compositions to the sessions, and encouraged a second generation of even younger players, especially his protege Bud Powell. These efforts continued when Monk moved with Clarke to Kelly's Stables in 1942.
Gillespie and others have verified that Monk participated actively in the give-and-take of these sessions, and the music that evolved from this period expressed, especially in its harmonic approach, certain aspects of Monk's thinking. The rapid tempos and arpeggiated melodies generally identified with bebop are far removed from Monk's aesthetic, however, and he quickly distanced himself from the center of bop activity. Although he did some work with Lucky Millinder, Coleman Hawkins and both the early combo and big band of Dizzy Gillespie, much of his time in the remainder of the '40s was spent organizing his own groups, often with young players like the teenaged Sonny Rollins. A few jobs cropped up, but his bands spent much of their time rehearsing in Monk's kitchen (where he kept his piano), even after he began recording for Blue Note.
The notoriety of his accompanists was less important to Monk than their ability to learn his music correctly. He had little tolerance for complaints about his music's difficulty - he famously told Sahib Shihab at one of the Blue Note sessions, "You a musician? You got a union card? Then play it!" - his insistence on writing little down and forcing players to use their ears only heightened the challenge. Most responded surprisingly well, whether they turned out to be giants like Art Blakey and Milt Jackson, or obscure journeymen who would be totally forgotten if not for their role in the documentation of Monk's music.
Saxophonist Ike Quebec, a Blue Note leader and adviser to label owners Alfred Lion arid Francis Wolff, was
instrumental in bringing Monk to their attention when they expressed interest in documenting modern jazz. His input is most obvious on Monk's initial session, recorded on October 15, 1947, where Quebec takes composer credit on two of the four titles and where his 17-year-old cousin Danny Quebec West is the alto saxophonist. The other saxophonist, tenor man Billy Smith, is similarly unknown, while the remaining sidemen proved to have greater longevity. Trumpeter Idrees Sulieman, born Leonard Graham in 1923, worked in various big bands and combos before moving to Europe in 1961 and is still playing in 1994. Bassist Gene Ramey (1913-84) was a colleague of Charlie Parker's in the Jay McShann orchestra and became one of the most widely recorded players of the period. Art Blakey (1919-90), soon to be identified as Monk's perfect drummer, would begin his own career as a leader for Blue Note before the year was out. …”
At this point, Bob begins a session-by-session analysis of the tunes and musicians that make up the music on the four Blue Note CD’s and concluded his essay with the following observations about the importance of Monk’s music on Blue Note in the evolution of Monk’s own career and to the development of modern Jazz in the 1950s and beyond.
“Some might consider the lengthier tracks with Rollins and Coltrane extraneous additions to what otherwise would be a perfectly acceptable set of "complete" Blue Note Monk. Given that Monk's music grew and expanded, though, sounding ever more clearly in the ears of musicians and listeners, these later performances strike me as essential complements to the groundbreaking sessions of 1947-52.
They take us into the future, where Monk becomes more and more central to jazz of the late 20th century and where, in the years following the issuance of this collection, he will no doubt assume his rightful place as one of the greatest contributors to American culture.”
- Bob Blumenthal