The rise and fall of legendary jazz musicians is an overlapping narrative of eras, styles, and historical moments. Thelonious Sphere Monk is one of the undisputed greatest American musicians of all time, though the journey to his legendary status was far from glamorous.
Monk was a “musician’s musician,” praised by the artistic community, but considerably outside the popular and acceptable mainstream. His first deal with Prestige Records fell through when his music was deemed too complicated and difficult for the mainstream American audience. This viewpoint, fueled by music critics, damaged Monk’s early reputation and caused sales of his first recordings to drop.
Riverside Records bought Monk’s contract from Prestige for a low price, and the buyout would shift Monk’s career into one that would bring his genius to the fore. Monk’s time with Riverside would provide some of the greatest recordings of his career. In order to put Monk on the map, Riverside asked him to do something unorthodox: cover an entire album of Duke Ellington songs.
Crossroads of Legends
The Duke himself was dropped from his label, Capitol Records, in the same year as the release of Monk’s cover album—1955. The Duke Ellington Orchestra was struggling to stay together, and Ellington’s profile had fallen considerably due to what many considered to be an outmoded style.
Swing and the big band era fell out after World War II; many were turning to the rising Sinatra and the era of jazz crooners. Ellington was having a hard time booking gigs, as a struggling economy was turning to smaller combo bands. This smaller arrangement served night clubs and cabarets far better than expensive, bulky big bands, and it was this environment that gave rise to the bebop movement that Monk is considered an integral founder of.
On paper, Monk and Duke were polar opposites. Duke’s music was appealing and polished, while Monk had a reputation for abrasive, complicated twists and turns in his music. Many viewed Duke as a staple of the wing era, while Monk was considered an irreverent outsider, incapable of playing traditional, conventional standards.
Monk Plays Duke
Riverside producer Orrin Keepnews is credited with convincing Monk to play the Ellington standards. It may have seemed like a gamble, especially with Monk’s reputation as a poorly selling wild card. But Keepnews knew what he was doing. Ellington’s beloved music was already familiar to audiences who had a hard time keeping up with Monk.
From the opening track, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing),” Monk reversed critics’ beliefs that he was incapable of staying true to tradition. At the same time, Monk took creative liberties over Ellington’s pieces, demonstrating mastery over both tradition and innovation. Throughout the album, Monk turns familiar groundwork into subtly complicated inversions, playing in the spirit of the Duke with his own personal brand of genius.
The album was met with mixed success, with some critics welcoming it hesitantly, and others feeling that it lacked the energy that made Monk’s previous work interesting. A second cover album of various standards was commissioned, and met with the same mixed success. Though things seemed slow in the coming, both Monk and Duke would experience great success in following years.
Career Revival and Genius Recognized
In July of 1956, the Duke Ellington performed at the Newport Jazz Festival, and the performance led to an unbelievable revival of his career. Ellington’s face was on Time Magazine, and international headlines raved about a solo that lasted for 27 choruses, well past the event’s scheduled ending time. Ellington enjoyed the light of this great success for the rest of his career.
Towards the end of 1956, with two moderately successful cover albums under his belt, Monk recorded and released his first album of original composition, Brilliant Corners. The album became the most critically acclaimed album of the following year, earning Monk a five-star reputation as one of the most important leaders of the bebop movement.
Monk’s entire body of work remains among the greatest of all jazz musicians, with the Ellington album cementing the beginnings and golden years of his career. Future musicians were inspired to cover jazz legends, including Monk himself, whose songs have long since been inducted into the canon of jazz standards despite their difficulty.
Monk and his music remain a testament to the timelessness and nearly unlimited opportunity for innovation throughout all of jazz.