Saturday, October 10, 2009


Today is the birthday of Thelonius Monk, born October 10, 1917. Known primarily as a jazz innovator, the utterly unique Monk has long been recognized as simply one of the most inventive pianists of any genre.

Born in North Carolina but raised in New York City, Monk was a serious music student by the age of nine, and was touring as a professional pianist by his early teens. He formed his own quartet and played local bars and small clubs until the spring of 1941, when drummer Kenny Clarke hired him as the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, which became the ground zero of the “bebop revolution." The musical scene at Minton's attracted young musicians brimming with fresh ideas about harmony and rhythm — including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, and Bud Powell. Monk’s harmonic innovations were fundamental to the development of modern jazz in this period and he was celebrated as the “High Priest of Bebop.”

Despite his contributions to the development of modern jazz, Monk remained fairly obscure, and didn't lead his first recording session until 1947 at thirty years old and a veteran of the jazz scene for half his life. In August 1951 he was falsely arrested for narcotics possession, essentially taking the rap for his friend Bud Powell, and was stripped of his police-issued “cabaret card,” without which jazz musicians couldn't perform in New York. He continued to play sporadic concerts and out-of-town gigs, and when his cabaret card was restored in 1957 he enjoyed a very long and successful engagement with John Coltrane, which was a financial and critical highpoint of his career.

Monk recorded a number of great albums through the 1960's, but by 1970 his personal eccentricities and deteriorating health made it hard for him to either tour or record, and he made his final public appearance in July 1976. On February 5, 1982, he suffered a stroke and never regained consciousness. He died twelve days later, on February 17th.

This gorgeous Monk composition, "Crepescule with Nellie" was written for his constant companion, his wife of 35 years, Nellie.

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