Another very noteworthy and prominent composer that left an indelible mark on the history of Jazz throughout the years was Thelonius Monk. His legacy in the genre is indisputable, influencing jazz artists, sounds, and improvisations even to this day.
Let’s kick things off with a bit of Monk with “Don’t Blame Me” from back in 1966.
Thelonious Monk Background
Born in October of 1917, Thelonious Monk was exposed to the world of music at an early age, training on classical piano playing at just the age of eleven.1 Thelonious Monk’s piano training and lessons would serve as an important catalyst to kick start the rest of his prolific career. Even at the start of his playing career, it was obvious that Thelonious Monk would be a gifted musician. He reported in interviews that he was able to teach himself how to play the piano and read music as well by observing his sister. Thelonious Monk’s family, fortunately, recognized his aptitude and passion for music and saved up their money to invest in a miniature grand piano of his own that he could use to further advance his skills.2
Growing up in New York City, Thelonious Monk was birthed in the perfect location to cultivate his musical prowess. His began his career touring as an accompanying musician to an evangelist in his early teens.3 Following this gig, Thelonious moved on to become the piano player for ‘Minton’s Playhouse’, which was a night club based in Manhattan. It was here that Thelonious was able to truly develop his skills as a jazz player and craft his song as the opportunity allowed him to rub elbows with some of the other most prominent figures in jazz such as; Charlie Parker, Dizzy, and Miles Davis among others.
Around the mid ‘40’s, Thelonious began to make his first recordings with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet, which served as a launching point for him to inducted into the infamous Blue Note Recording Label in the late ‘40’s, which had famously housed many other notable jazz musicians and professionals. During his time at the label, Thelonious Monk was able to produce many noteworthy records that would stand the test of time.
Monk’s Chord Voicings
One of the most noteworthy features of Monk’s playing style was his use of dissonance. Those that had not heard of Monk before were often somewhat disenchanted upon first listen. To the untrained ear, it seemed as though he wasn’t playing the ‘correct notes,’ but over time it became apparent that Monk was sonically evolving the sound of jazz and expanding listener’s perceptions of what sounded ‘good’.
This dangerous maneuver of chord structure is what gave Monk his distinctiveness and tenacity in Jazz. His willingness to break convention and experiment during live recordings and performances was a gutsy move that eventually landed him much critical acclaim during the ‘40’s and ‘50’s and propelled him forward as one of the foremost names in the musical world.
However, during this period of time Thelonious was also dealing with several demons. One of the unknown facts about Thelonious Monk was that he wasn’t always financially stable. This wasn’t necessarily a result of negligence on his part, but just as a result of the fickle nature of the music business.4
Despite the critical acclaim that Monk and many other jazz legends receive, they were often extremely underpaid in comparison to the material that they provided as well as overworked. This made life excruciatingly difficult for many jazz musicians in this era. It is also important to remember that this was during an era where racism along with financial and political disenfranchisement was rampant in America, making it even more difficult for many of the more prominent earlier jazz musicians such as Thelonious Monk to escape the pit of poverty.
This, in addition, with the reported narcotics and alcohol abuse are what have been used to help paint the common picture of him as a ‘tortured artist’ or crown him with the informal superlative of ‘Mad Monk’.
But these titles don’t do Thelonious Monk justice at all. We commonly would love to believe that jazz artists were these inebriated geniuses that could only cope with the thrusts and difficulties of this world through mind-altering substances. Yet with Monk, something a little deeper was amiss. After much research by contemporary historians and biographers, it was discovered that he suffered from bipolar disorder. Those unfamiliar with the disorder may not be aware of the profound crippling effects that this disorder can have on its victims.
While those afflicted with the disease tend to be dispositioned towards the musical, talented, and intellectually gifted, they are also frequently misunderstood and ostracized due to their inexplicable condition. This was most likely even more so the case during Thelonious Monk’s time in the 40’s through 60’s, when substantially less was known about the disease than present times. As a result, many folks that knew Monk during that era and were aware of his erratic behavior often dismissed it as ‘Monk being Monk’.5
Therefore, when put in the context of this disorder and anecdotes from close family and friends, it seems that Monk’s substance use was more attributable to him attempting to self-medicate the illness rather than induce intoxication for pure recreational purposes – although that surely played somewhat of a role as well.
With this knowledge, it begs the question of whether this illness was a contributing factor to Monk being who he was. It has often been theorized in popular culture that mental illnesses in prominent artists and individuals are ‘responsible’ for their genius in some way. While many psychiatrists and professionals usually dismiss this for fear of romanticizing mental illness, a few disagree. The research that correlates bipolar disorder among other mental illnesses with creativity, general talent, and aptitude for various things is indisputable. However, there is no telling what Monk would have been without his illness. Neither Bipolar Disorder or any other mental illness is responsible for particular passions that one has. Being born in an environment that greatly facilitated his musical creativity, it is no coincidence that he became the famous musician that he currently is.
Fortunately, Monk’s wife Nellie and his family were generally supportive of him despite his eccentricities and did not leave his side at all – another crucial aspect of his success. His family was largely able to steer Monk away from some of the more extreme treatments that were recommended to him, such as electroconvulsive therapy. However, in what could probably be attributed to the primitive knowledge of psychiatric disorders at the time, it is theorized that Monk was still often misdiagnosed which led to the prescribing of inappropriate medications that often further deteriorated his health and had substantially more adverse effects upon him than positive.
Watch this great documentary, “Straight, No Chaser”. You’ll learn a fair bit about Monk from it, and it gives you a very intriguing portrait of the man.
Monk’s Last Years
The last few years of Thelonious Monk’s life were somewhat sad in nature. He did not speak much to either family or close colleagues, leading some to attribute the change in behavior to the anti-psychotic medication that he was taking at the time.
Thelonious eventually passed away in the early ‘80s after concluding his musical career with a relatively large amount of inactivity in the 70’s. Yet despite the mental and financial troubles that Monk struggled to overcome during his life, he still left a legacy that will live forever within the genre of jazz. He was given many awards posthumously, including the ‘Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award’ and ‘Pulitzer Prize’.
Many of the standards that he created during the peak of his musical career are still played in revered in many jazz circles and his playing style is one that had an influence on countless pianists for decades to follow. His family has also done an excellent job ‘carrying the torch,’ so to speak, creating different foundations and institutions like the ‘Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz’ to help further jazz education and teachings.
Through the good and bad, it cannot be denied that Thelonious Monk was one of the most spectacular jazz players and composers the genre has ever seen.