Thelonious Monk was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina on October 10, 1917. He began playing piano when he was the age of five, in New York City, where he grew up.
He started as the pianist for the Cootie Williams Orchestra, where he gained fame for his tune “Round Midnight”, in 1944. Thelonious Monk was part of that small but select group of jazz musicians who were responsible for the birth of a new kind of jazz – bebop. In his teens he met Mary Lou Williams, a fine jazz pianist who became a lifelong friend and a major inspiration. By the early 1940’s he was playing Harlem clubs like Minton’s and Monroe’s Uptown House with fellow innovators Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. In the mid 40’s he led groups under his own name, worked with Coleman Hawkins, and was with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra for a while; but he did not work regularly until the mid 50’s when he finally became recognized for the contribution he had made to the new jazz and started recording some remarkable albums for Riverside.
In 1947 Blue Note record signed Monk and recorded him for a few year. Then after little other work he recorded a record of Duke Ellington hits in 1955. This served to bring him out of the obscure, and somewhat into the main stream of Jazz. Then in1957, John Coltrane was kicked out of Miles Davis’s band, because of a severe drug problem. As a result, the great saxophonist Coltrane joined Monk’s quartet.
Because of Coltrane’s presence, people quickly began to recognize Monk as one of the great stars of Jazz. He signed an extended contract with Columbia records in 1962, and appeared on the cover of Time magazine in1964. He continued to tour through the rest of the ’60’s, and he played with the “Giants of Jazz” in the early 70’s. In 1962 he began recording for Columbia. During the 60’s he led a quartet featuring Charlie Rouse on tenor, a group that recorded and toured extensively. He retired from touring and recording in the early seventies. His last recordings were made in Europe in November 1971 while on a ‘Giants of Jazz’ tour for George Wein.
His piano playing and his compositions have oddness about them, a strange angularity that is not always easily assimilated, but pays back dividends for those willing to listen. Many of his recordings are of his own compositions but his treatment of Tin Pan Alley standards like “Tea for Two”, “Liza”, and “Memories of You” show his unique approach to the keyboard.Monk retired suddenly in 1973. He suffered from some sort of mental illness which kept him from touring, with the exception of a few scarce appearances.
He died in 1982, at the age of 65. Monk continued to grow in popularity even after his death. He will always be recognized as a true individual in Jazz music. His ability to give a melody with his own flare, in addition to his funky hats and sunglasses will always be remembered.
Some of Monk’s greatest recordings: Bibliography: