Tag Archives: Thelonious Monk

Happy Birthday Thelonious Monk

I first heard Thelonious Monk in 1970, several years before I put my jazz head on. Probably it was my classmate Warren who auditioned an LP track. I don’t recall which one. I didn’t care for it. However, in the winter of 1971 I began working part time in a record store next to the post office in Cleveland Heights. In Budget records and Tapes’s collection of vinyl promos were two Monk records, Monk’s Blues, the big band record arranged by Oliver Nelson, and, Criss Cross, a quartet record from the sixties with tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. The former record was one of the owner’s favorite records. At the time the available discography of the master was quite slim with the exception of the Columbia recordings, all of which dated from the sixties beginning in 1963.

“To be nobody but yourself in a world that night and day wants to make you like everybody else is to fight the greatest battle you will fight and never stop fighting.” – E. E. Cummings

The iconic Cleveland jazz maven Harvey Pekar scoffed at the big band record one day while in the store, and lamented the unavailability of the “class Blue Note sides.” But, never mind, Harvey, despite your influence on my tastes and your insistence on the store bringing in the Black Lion trio dates recorded in 1971 and released in 1972, it would not be until those Blue Notes were issued in a stirling twofer in 1976 that I got bitten by the Monk hard.

How hard? ‘Life-changingly hard.’ Monk is second to no one in my estimation and surely in my experience. Happy 100th birthday to the khidr of sound, Thelonious Sphere Monk.

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Sound of the Spontaneous

Psychedelic Blues from Drew Christie on Vimeo.

Captain Beefheart was asked what the greatest concert he ever saw, and he answered something like this:

Thelonious Monk was to play a solo piano concert at an old Victorian theatre in San Francisco. I got to my seat and waited for the concert to begin. On the stage was a glistening Steinway. On it was stood a beautiful bunch of flowers in a large crystal vase. The lid was open and framed the vase of flowers. The lights softened and from stage left strode the tall Mr. monk. He slowly approached the piano, stopped, looked out at the audience, took a few steps to the piano, grabbed the prop for the lid and set it down. The lid of the Steinway came down and it caused the vase to tumble backwards onto the piano’s strings with a striking eruption of sound.

Monk took a step back, turned to the audience, turned away and walked off the stage. The sound was still reverberating.

Voiceworks -Singing at the Cistern from Al Bergstein on Vimeo.

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A LIFE’S MONK

A friend of mine recently afforded me the opportunity to do a project. He loaned me the compact disc set of Thelonious Monk’s London Sessions, (that I’ve long owned on LP,) and I compiled two CDs from the three discs. The first consists of the various master and alternate takes and ends with the musing riff, Chordially. The second disc contains the extant single takes. There are many masterpieces made during these close-to-the-end (1971) sessions recorded for Alan Bates and Black Lion Records. Most famous is the rending solo version of Loverman.

For the trio sides Bates joined Monk with bassist Al McKibbon and drummer Art Blakey. McKibbon is especially valued here as he shadows Monk’s late stage temporal (as in: tempo) flow. Blakey plays with uncharacteristic restraint. His work here is distinctive for this reason. Of course, those that know the complete sessions already understand on the first set I’ve compiled, I’ve brought together trio and solo versions of the same compositions.

My goal was to assemble a listener’s version for study and contemplation. Having previously posted on religious matters I’m tempted to elevate my deep love for Monk and his music to something on the order of a religious devotion and, perhaps, to a religion. In one personal sense, why the heck not? After all, with Monk at the head of my pagan musical pantheon, this idiosyncratic religion would be about beauty and goodness as well as truth.

I heard Monk on record for the first time when I was 19. Monk Underground. It sounded weird and like nothing else I had heard, like no other jazz I had heard up to then, (this was the second year of my being turned to jazz.) Harvey Pekar hipped me to reissues just released (1973-74) and so my first Monk record was the Prestige two-fer, Thelonious Monk, containing sessions recorded between 1952 and 1954. The last trio session was recorded 20 days after my date of birth.

My tattered copy of this double set has some of its liner noted highlighted in green. As I open it up today for the first time in many years, (an essential box set on CD replaced it for listening purposes,) I see highlighted:

Once a sax player complained to Monk hat he’d written something outside the range of his horn, “impossible” to execute.

“You’ve got an instrument,” counseled Monk: “either play it, or throw it away.” He played it.

Hmmm. You could start a zen-like religion on the basis of this counsel, alone.

I could go on and on. As for studying Monk, countless hours have been spent in his sound world. I hold his art as being transformative. This begs interesting questions about the nature of music. But, since I could go on and on and try to articulate a somewhat ineffable sense, I’ll lead the interested reader to one way i articulated this over ten years ago. A Monk section was the very first piece of creative work I loosed on the web, God, One Note!.

I have no favorite Monk record because when I think of one I thing of all. If you’ve never heard much of Monk, I (guess) I’d point to Brilliant Corners, recorded for Riverside. This was his first combo session for Riverside (1956) and there’s not much one can say except that Monk and his bandmates, Ernie Henry, Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry, Oscar Pettiford, and Max Roach went to work and came out with something for the ages.

But, darn, when I heard the Blue Notes for the first time in 1976, (another two-fer,) I held their miniaturization to be diamond hard and explosive at the same time. Monk’s Riverside solos became available in excellent reissues from Japan and I promptly wore them out. I got a scratchy copy of the second big band record, (the collaboration with Hall Overton from 1963, this time for Columbia,) and thought I had gone to heaven.

Nowadays, the gateways to Monk paradise pop up every now and then. For example, in the past year, Blue Note has uncovered a Carnegie Hall live set featuring John Coltrane, while Concord/Fantasy has gifted the believer with the remastered Riverside studio dates with Coltrane.

But, where to begin? Here are the covers of eight starting points; the great eight. Change your musical life: go for it, for the bright moments.

Monk Eight

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