Thelonious Monk

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Logan Whaley
Improvisation IV

Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk is known as one of the most unique, inimitable piano players of all time. Monk was both ahead of his time, and deeply rooted in tradition, and used his extraordinary gift of perfect pitch to learn songs and memorize them fast. Thelonious had a love for the piano from a young age, and grew up in Manhattan around lots of musicians. After failing academically as a young high school student he decided to drop out of school and pursue being a musician. He went on tour with an evangelic healer for 2 years, shortly after dropping out. When he came back home he was playing out as much as possible. His reputation grew as one of the best around as he began to grow. He was co-house pianist at a club called “Minton’s Playhouse” with Bud Powell. The after- hours jam sessions that went on there, along with a number of other jazz clubs, gave birth to what is now known as ‘be-bop.’ Musicians he played with were Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Mary Lou Williams, Kenny Clarke, Oscar Pettiford, Max Roach, Tadd Dameron, to name a few. The jam sessions that took place here were inspiring many musicians of the day. From the time Thelonious was on the scene this new thing called ‘modern jazz’ was emerging, and people either really liked it or didn’t understand it at all. And Monk was the leader of modern-jazz. No one was playing the way Monk did, he was just purely original. When Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had questions regarding music they went to Monk for the answer. Monk was annoyed when he heard people praising ‘Bird’ and ‘Dizzy’ saying that started the revolution to modern jazz. Monk said this in an interview with a French ‘Jazz magazine’: “I feel like I have contributed more to modern jazz than all of the other musicians combined. That’s why I don’t like to hear: ‘Gillespie and Parker’ brought the revolution to Jazz’ When I know most of the ideas came from me. Dizzy and Bird did nothing for me musically, they didn’t teach me anything.” (‘The Life and Times of Thelonious Monk’, book p. 105 Robin D.G. Kelley). Monk was bitter about these guys because they’d get all the gigs meanwhile Monk for 6 years couldn’t even play in the city he grew up in after getting his Cabaret Card taking from him after being falsely arrested for drug possession. The drugs were in fact his friend Bud Powell and Monk took the rap for him. But Monk found work in gigs during this time often in Brooklyn, or out of town. Jazz was spirit of the country, and Monk’s music was perfect for the time, even though it wasn’t being appreciated by all for what it was. Thelonious Monk was born October 10th, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where he spent the first four years of his life. Both Thelonious’ parents were son/daughter of slaves that grew up in North Carolina. Thelonious was Monk’s fathers, grandfathers, and great- grandfathers’ name. All witnessed the battles that took in their backyards and neighborhood. The struggle by Thelonious great-grandparents and grandparents caused Thelonious to feel more fortunate to be in his life and not that one of a slave. Monk’s mother chose to leave the history of racism in North Carolina and join her cousin in New York City. She had to get out of North Carolina so she took her kids up to New York City, leaving behind Monk’s father, because he was battling a sickness where he couldn’t live with the city air. Monk was the middle brother of one older sister Marion and one younger brother Thomas. The four of them began a new life in Manhattan, in the “San Juan Hill” neighborhood, where racism and violence was happening every day. Thelonious had to battle all the races to and from his walk to school. When he came back there was only one thing he wanted to do, piano. Inspired by Louie Armstrong he originally began with the trumpet. But when his trumpet instructor saw him noodling on the piano he said “You gotta take up piano.” So he did. He...
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