Thelonious Sphere Monk A Biography and Documentary Film                                    1
The FilmThelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988) is a documentary about the life ofThelonious Monk. Produced by Clint E...
Thelonious Sphere Monk              Biography                  (October 10, 1917-February 17, 1982)                       ...
Born on October 10, 1917, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Thelonious was only four when hismother and his two siblings, Ma...
new melodic lines over popular chord progressions than in creating a whole new architecture forhis music, one in which har...
In 1955, Monk signed with a new label, Riverside, and recorded several outstanding LP’s whichgarnered critical attention, ...
In January of 1970, Charlie Rouse left the band, and two years later Columbia quietly droppedMonk from its roster. For the...
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Thelonious Sphere Monk , A Biography and Documentary Film

  1. 1. Thelonious Sphere Monk A Biography and Documentary Film 1
  2. 2. The FilmThelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988) is a documentary about the life ofThelonious Monk. Produced by Clint Eastwood, Bruce Ricker, and directed/co-produced by Charlotte Zwerin, it features live performances by Monk and hisgroup, and posthumous interviews with friends and family. The film was createdwhen a large amount of archived footage of Monk was found in the 1980s.Thelonious Sphere Monk, A Biography and Documentary Film 2
  3. 3. Thelonious Sphere Monk Biography (October 10, 1917-February 17, 1982) By Robin D. G. Kelley Ph.D.Source:"You know, anybody can play a composition and use far-out chords and make it sound wrong. It’s making it sound right that’s not easy." Thelonious Monk, 1961With the arrival Thelonious Sphere Monk, modern music—let alone modern culture--simplyhasn’t been the same. Recognized as one of the most inventive pianists of any musical genre,Monk achieved a startlingly original sound that even his most devoted followers have beenunable to successfully imitate. His musical vision was both ahead of its time and deeply rooted intradition, spanning the entire history of the music from the “stride” masters of James P. Johnsonand Willie “the Lion” Smith to the tonal freedom and kinetics of the “avant garde.” And heshares with Edward “Duke” Ellington the distinction of being one of the century’s greatestAmerican composers. At the same time, his commitment to originality in all aspects of life—infashion, in his creative use of language and economy of words, in his biting humor, even in theway he danced away from the piano—has led fans and detractors alike to call him “eccentric,”“mad” or even “taciturn.” Consequently, Monk has become perhaps the most talked about andleast understood artist in the history of jazz.Thelonious Sphere Monk, A Biography and Documentary Film 3
  4. 4. Born on October 10, 1917, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Thelonious was only four when hismother and his two siblings, Marion and Thomas, moved to New York City. Unlike otherSouthern migrants who headed straight to Harlem, the Monks settled on West 63rd Street in the“San Juan Hill” neighborhood of Manhattan, near the Hudson River. His father, Thelonious, Sr.,joined the family three years later, but health considerations forced him to return to NorthCarolina. During his stay, however, he often played the harmonica, ‘Jew’s harp,” and piano—allof which probably influenced his son’s unyielding musical interests. Young Monk turned out tobe a musical prodigy in addition to a good student and a fine athlete. He studied the trumpetbriefly but began exploring the piano at age nine. He was about nine when Marion’s pianoteacher took Thelonious on as a student. By his early teens, he was playing rent parties, sitting inon organ and piano at a local Baptist church, and was reputed to have won several “amateurhour” competitions at the Apollo Theater.Admitted to Peter Stuyvesant, one of the city’s best high schools, Monk dropped out at the endof his sophomore year to pursue music and around 1935 took a job as a pianist for a travelingevangelist and faith healer. Returning after two years, he formed his own quartet and playedlocal bars and small clubs until the spring of 1941, when drummer Kenny Clarke hired him asthe house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem.Minton’s, legend has it, was where the “bebop revolution” began. The after-hours jam sessions atMinton’s, along with similar musical gatherings at Monroe’s Uptown House, Dan Wall’s ChiliShack, among others, attracted a new generation of musicians brimming with fresh ideas aboutharmony and rhythm—notably Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Mary Lou Williams, KennyClarke, Oscar Pettiford, Max Roach, Tadd Dameron, and Monk’s close friend and fellow pianist,Bud Powell. Monk’s harmonic innovations proved fundamental to the development of modernjazz in this period. Anointed by some critics as the “High Priest of Bebop,” several of hiscompositions (“52nd Street Theme,” “Round Midnight,” “Epistrophy” [co-written with KennyClarke and originally titled “Fly Right” and then “Iambic Pentameter”], “I Mean You”) werefavorites among his contemporaries.Yet, as much as Monk helped usher in the bebop revolution, he also charted a new course formodern music few were willing to follow. Whereas most pianists of the bebop era played sparsechords in the left hand and emphasized fast, even eighth and sixteenth notes in the right hand,Monk combined an active right hand with an equally active left hand, fusing stride and angularrhythms that utilized the entire keyboard. And in an era when fast, dense, virtuosic solos werethe order of the day, Monk was famous for his use of space and silence. In addition to his uniquephrasing and economy of notes, Monk would “lay out” pretty regularly, enabling his sidemen toexperiment free of the piano’s fixed pitches. As a composer, Monk was less interested in writingThelonious Sphere Monk, A Biography and Documentary Film 4
  5. 5. new melodic lines over popular chord progressions than in creating a whole new architecture forhis music, one in which harmony and rhythm melded seamlessly with the melody. “Everything Iplay is different,” Monk once explained, “different melody, different harmony, differentstructure. Each piece is different from the other. . . . [W]hen the song tells a story, when it gets acertain sound, then it’s through . . . completed.”Despite his contribution to the early development of modern jazz, Monk remained fairlymarginal during the 1940s and early 1950s. Besides occasional gigs with bands led by KennyClarke, Lucky Millinder, Kermit Scott, and Skippy Williams, in 1944 tenor saxophonistColeman Hawkins was the first to hire Monk for a lengthy engagement and the first to recordwith him. Most critics and many musicians were initially hostile to Monk’s sound. Blue Note,then a small record label, was the first to sign him to a contract. Thus, by the time he went intothe studio to lead his first recording session in 1947, he was already thirty years old and a veteranof the jazz scene for nearly half of his life. But he knew the scene and during the initial two yearswith Blue Note had hired musicians whom he believed could deliver. Most were not big namesat the time but they proved to be outstanding musicians, including trumpeters Idrees Suliemanand George Taitt; twenty-two year-old Sahib Shihab and seventeen-year-old Danny QuebecWest on alto saxophones; Billy Smith on tenor; and bassists Gene Ramey and John Simmons. Onsome recordings Monk employed veteran Count Basie drummer Rossiere “Shadow” Wilson; onothers, the drum seat was held by well-known bopper Art Blakey. His last Blue Note session as aleader in 1952 finds Monk surrounded by an all-star band, including Kenny Dorham (trumpet),Lou Donaldson (alto), “Lucky” Thompson (tenor), Nelson Boyd (bass), and Max Roach (drums).In the end, although all of Monk’s Blue Note sides are hailed today as some of his greatestrecordings, at the time of their release in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they proved to be acommercial failure.Harsh, ill-informed criticism limited Monk’s opportunities to work—opportunities hedesperately needed especially after his marriage to Nellie Smith in 1947, and the birth of his son,Thelonious, Jr., in 1949. Monk found work where he could, but he never compromised hismusical vision. His already precarious financial situation took a turn for the worse in August of1951, when he was falsely arrested for narcotics possession, essentially taking the rap for hisfriend Bud Powell. Deprived of his cabaret card—a police-issued “license” without which jazzmusicians could not perform in New York clubs—Monk was denied gigs in his home town forthe next six years. Nevertheless, he played neighborhood clubs in Brooklyn—most notably,Tony’s Club Grandean, sporadic concerts, took out-of-town gigs, composed new music, andmade several trio and ensemble records under the Prestige Label (1952-1954), which includedmemorable performances with Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, and Milt Jackson. In the fall of1953,he celebrated the birth of his daughter Barbara, and the following summer he crossed the Atlanticfor the first time to play the Paris Jazz Festival. During his stay, he recorded his first solo albumfor Vogue. These recordings would begin to establish Monk as one of the century’s mostimaginative solo pianists.Thelonious Sphere Monk, A Biography and Documentary Film 5
  6. 6. In 1955, Monk signed with a new label, Riverside, and recorded several outstanding LP’s whichgarnered critical attention, notably Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, The UniqueThelonious Monk, Brilliant Corners, Monk’s Music and his second solo album, TheloniousMonk Alone. In 1957, with the help of his friend and sometime patron, the Baroness Pannonicade Koenigswarter, he had finally gotten his cabaret card restored and enjoyed a very long andsuccessful engagement at the Five Spot Café with John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, WilburWare and then Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass, and Shadow Wilson on drums. From that point on,his career began to soar; his collaborations with Johnny Griffin, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey,Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan, and arranger Hall Overton, among others, were lauded by criticsand studied by conservatory students. Monk even led a successful big band at Town Hall in1959. It was as if jazz audiences had finally caught up to Monk’s music.By 1961, Monk had established a more or less permanent quartet consisting of Charlie Rouse ontenor saxophone, John Ore (later Butch Warren and then Larry Gales) on bass, and FrankieDunlop (later Ben Riley) on drums. He performed with his own big band at Lincoln Center(1963), and at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and the quartet toured Europe in 1961 and Japan in1963. In 1962, Monk had also signed with Columbia records, one of the biggest labels in theworld, and in February of 1964 he became the third jazz musician in history to grace the cover ofTime Magazine.However, with fame came the media’s growing fascination with Monk’s alleged eccentricities.Stories of his behavior on and off the bandstand often overshadowed serious commentary abouthis music. The media helped invent the mythical Monk—the reclusive, naïve, idiot savant whosemusical ideas were supposed to be entirely intuitive rather than the product of intensive study,knowledge and practice. Indeed, his reputation as a recluse (Time called him the "loneliestMonk") reveals just how much Monk had been misunderstood. As his former sideman, tenorsaxophonist Johnny Griffin, explained, Monk was somewhat of a homebody: "If Monk isntworking he isnt on the scene. Monk stays home. He goes away and rests." Unlike the popularstereotypes of the jazz musician, Monk was devoted to his family. He appeared at family events,played birthday parties, and wrote playfully complex songs for his children: "Little RootieTootie" for his son, "Boo Boos Birthday" and “Green Chimneys” for his daughter, and aChristmas song titled “A Merrier Christmas.” The fact is, the Monk family held together despitelong stretches without work, severe money shortages, sustained attacks by critics, grueling roadtrips, bouts with illness, and the loss of close friends.During the 1960s, Monk scored notable successes with albums such as Criss Cross, Monk’sDream, It’s Monk Time, Straight No Chaser, and Underground. But as Columbia/CBS recordspursued a younger, rock-oriented audience, Monk and other jazz musicians ceased to be apriority for the label. Monk’s final recording with Columbia was a big band session with OliverNelson’s Orchestra in November of 1968, which turned out to be both an artistic and commercialfailure. Columbia’s disinterest and Monk’s deteriorating health kept the pianist out of the studio.Thelonious Sphere Monk, A Biography and Documentary Film 6
  7. 7. In January of 1970, Charlie Rouse left the band, and two years later Columbia quietly droppedMonk from its roster. For the next few years, Monk accepted fewer engagements and recordedeven less. His quartet featured saxophonists Pat Patrick and Paul Jeffrey, and his son Thelonious,Jr., took over on drums in 1971. That same year through 1972, Monk toured widely with the"Giants of Jazz," a kind of bop revival group consisting of Dizzy Gillespie, Kai Winding, SonnyStitt, Al McKibbon and Art Blakey, and made his final public appearance in July of 1976.Physical illness, fatigue, and perhaps sheer creative exhaustion convinced Monk to give upplaying altogether. On February 5, 1982, he suffered a stroke and never regained consciousness;twelve days later, on February 17th, he died.Today Thelonious Monk is widely accepted as a genuine master of American music. Hiscompositions constitute the core of jazz repertory and are performed by artists from manydifferent genres. He is the subject of award winning documentaries, biographies and scholarlystudies, prime time television tributes, and he even has an Institute created in his name. TheThelonious Monk Institute of Jazz was created to promote jazz education and to train andencourage new generations of musicians. It is a fitting tribute to an artist who was always willingto share his musical knowledge with others but expected originality in return.Robin D. G. Kelley Ph.D.Robin D. G. Kelley, a Professor of Anthropology, African American Studies and Jazz Studies atColumbia University, has published several books on African American culture and politics. Hismost recent book is Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (2002). His articles onmusic have appeared in the New York Times, Black Music Research Journal, The Nation, LenoxAvenue, Rolling Stone, American Visions, among others. He is currently completing two books:Thelonious: A Life (The Free Press, forthcoming 2009), and Speaking in Tongues: Jazz andModern Africa (Harvard University Press, forthcoming 2006)Thelonious Sphere Monk, A Biography and Documentary Film 7