From amongst all the jazz legends and pop legendary pianists, Thelonious Monk is most known for what can be called 'straight forward jazz'. Born Thelonious Sphere Monk on the 10th of October 1917, Monk began playing the piano at the tender age of nine. Most of what he knew on the piano was self taught in addition to the tricks he learned while slyly dropping in on his elder sister Marian's piano classes and a little formal training.
|Thelonious Monk, Minton's Playhouse, New York, ca. September 1947.|
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
He dropped out of Stuyvesant High School where he was doing his schooling to start playing the piano professionally. He toured with an evangelist for whose meetings he played the church organ. In his later teens, he got gigs playing jazz piano. He was the house pianist at a club - Minton's Playhouse - in the early 40's. His influences at the time were most the stride pianists of the era - Duke Ellington, James P Johnson and the likes.
His trademark style of playing was something that he polished incessantly during the cutting competitions that took place at the club late at night featuring all the piano greats of the time. His stint at Minton's Playhouse brought him in touch with the other exponents of Bebop - Charlie Christian, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Kenny Clarke. It is this period of time that the bebop style of playing was created . He influenced the the bebop style of playing so much that he has arguably been referred to as the founder of bebop.
Monk then moved on to playing for groups. His first ever studio recording was made featuring the Coleman Hawkins quartet in 1944. He became the leader of the Blue Note three years later. His recordings with Blue Note displayed his penchant for coming up with composing music with strong melodies. The same year saw his marriage to Nellie Smith, with whom he had two children. His son TS Monk was born in 1949. He is a jazz drummer, composer and band leader. His daughter Barbara was born in 1953.
In 1951, Monk ran into trouble with the police. A car in which he and fellow pianist Bud Powell was found to contain narcotics. During the trial against Bud Powell, he refused serve as witness testifying against Bud Powell. As a result, his New York City Cabaret Card was taken away by the police. Thus not being able to play in New York where there was liquor being served. He continued to play in other places though.
He continued recording, touring and composing. After his contract with Blue Note Records lapsed, he moves to prestige records. At Prestige, he recorded some not-so-successful but critically acclaimed albums with Sonny Rollins on saxophone and Art Blakey on drums. It was around this time that the famous Christmas Eve sessions were recorded which were released in the form of the two albums - The Modern Jazz Giants and Bags Groove and Miles Davis - both of these by Miles Davis.
He visited Europe in 1954. He went to Paris to record and perform. He met jazz patron and member of the Rothschild family, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, with whom he struck a friendship that lasted his life long.
Though Monk was well recognized in jazz circles by his contemporaries and the jazz audience , his records didn't sell as well. He shifted from Prestige Records to Riverside Records, who bought out his contract. In an effort to get the masses in tune with his style of music (which was thought to be too difficult at the time for the average listener), Riverside asked him to record an album two album of his own versions of the jazz standards of the time.
Thus Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington was released with the intention of increasing Monk's market. The album has Duke Wellington's tunes redone by Monk for which he had to study Duke Ellington's pieces from scratch. On his next release, Brilliant Corners, he got a chance to actually record his own tunes. Expectedly the title track of the album was so difficult that it had to be put together from a total of three takes. Sony Rollins accompanied him on the album.