Thelonious Monk: The Jazz Composer As Visionary

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Author: Kofi Natambu
Date: Fall 2014
From: Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire(Vol. 14, Issue 2)
Publisher: Institute of African-American Affairs (IAAA)
Document Type: Essay; Excerpt
Length: 2,768 words

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By 1955 the legendary pianist-composer Thelonious Sphere Monk [b. October 10,1917) had been playing music professionally for over twenty years.

"They were always telling me for years to play commercial, be commercial. I'm not commercial. I say play your own way. Don't play what the public wants--you play what you want and let the public pick up on what you're doing--even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years."

--Thelonious Monk

"Monk is a virtuoso of the specific techniques of Jazz, in challengingly original uses of accent, rhythm, meter, time and of musically expressive space, rest, and silence ... He is a major jazz composer, the first since Duke Ellington ... His repertory abounds with intriguing melodies, truly instrumental pieces ... To play Monk properly, musicians justly testify, you have to know the melody and the harmony and understand how they fit together ... It is a sign of the great Jazz composer that his sense of form extends beyond written structure and beyond individual improviser, to encompass a whole performance ... So it is with Monk."

--Martin Williams

Like everything else about him--from his highly original name to his stubbornly independent, innovative, and utterly idiosyncratic approach to nearly every aspect of his extraordinary life and career--Monk was his "own man" from very early on. Moving with his family from North Carolina to New York at the age of five in 1922, the precocious Monk always went his own way and made his own decisions about how he wanted to live--even as a child. Thus, during his junior year in the spring of 1934 Monk left the academically rigorous and prestigious Stuyvesant High School in New York (which was and is a very competitive citywide magnet school which only admitted the best and most gifted students in the city) to pursue a professional career in music. He was just 17 at the time but had already impressed a number of his teachers and musical peers as a young man of great talent and potential. Coming from a very proud and independent black working-class family who loved music and insisted that their three children take music lessons (both of Monk's parents worked and Thelonious, Sr.--Monk's father--also played piano), Monk initially resisted his mother's suggestions that he play violin and later the trumpet (neither of which Monk liked). However, young Thelonious was utterly fascinated by his sister Marion's piano lessons which she took on the family's upright piano and the ten year old much preferred listening to her, especially when her music teacher came to their house. By the age of 12 in 1930 Monk had already learned to play the piano very well on his own by ear and keen observation. Highly impressed, the music teacher, a Mr. Wolfe (who was then a student at New York's famed Julliard School of Music), told Monk's parents not to waste any more money on their daughter's lessons since Marion had no real interest in playing music, but it was very apparent to the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A393059769