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Thelonious Monk is one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time and one of first creators of modern jazz.
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Author Robin Kelley discusses his biography, "Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original." Click "Buy Now" to learn more about the book. Video courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
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Thelonious Monk is one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time and one of first creators of modern jazz and bebop. For much of his career, Monk played with small groups at Milton's Playhouse. Many of his compositions have become jazz standards, including "Well, You Needn't," "Blue Monk" and "Round Midnight." His spares and angular music had a levity and playfulness to it.
"[Thelonious Monk] was my best friend ... If it hadn't been for him, I'm not so sure I would have been me. I learned so much playing with him, being with him."
Musician. Thelonious Monk was born on October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. When he was just four, his parents, Barbara and Thelonious, Sr., moved to New York City, where he would spend the next five decades of his life.
Monk began studying classical piano when he was eleven but had already shown some aptitude for the instrument. "I learned how to read before I took lessons," he later recalled. "You know, watching my sister practice her lessons over her shoulder." By the time Monk was thirteen, he had won the weekly amateur competition at the Apollo Theater so many times that the management banned him from re-entering the contest.
At age seventeen, Monk dropped out of the esteemed Stuyvesant High School to pursue his music career. He toured with the so-called "Texas Warhorse," an evangelist and faith healer, before assembling a quartet of his own. Although it was typical to play for a big band at this time, Monk preferred a more intimate work dynamic that would allow him to experiment with his sound.
In 1941, Monk began working at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, where he joined the house band and helped develop the school of jazz known as bebop. Alongside Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, he explored the fast, jarring, and often improvised styles that would later become synonymous with modern jazz.
Thelonious Monk's first known recording was made in 1944, when he worked as a member of Coleman Hawkins's quartet. Monk didn't record under his own name, however, until 1947, when he played as the leader of a sextet session for Blue Note.
Monk made a total of five Blue Note recordings between 1947 and 1952, including "Criss Cross" and "Evidence." These are generally regarded as the first works characteristic of Monk's unique jazz style, which embraced percussive playing, unusual repetitions and dissonant sounds. As Monk saw it, "The piano ain't got no wrong notes!" Though widespread recognition was still years away, Monk had already earned the regard of his peers as well as several important critics.
In 1947, Monk married Nellie Smith, his longtime sweetheart. They later had two children, whom they named after Monk's parents, Thelonious and Barbara. In 1952, Monk signed a contract with Prestige Records, which yielded pieces like "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and "Bags' Groove." The latter, which he recorded with Miles Davis in 1954, is sometimes said to be his finest piano solo ever.
Because Monk's work continued to be largely overlooked by jazz fans at large, Prestige sold his contract to Riverside Records in 1955. There, he attempted to make his first two recordings more widely accessible, but this effort was poorly received by critics.
Learn more about Thelonius Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin Kelley at Simon & Schuster.
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With its roots in the blues, jazz has been referred to as America's classical music, yet has also become a major global phenomenon, branching off into a variety of forms. Earlier pioneers like Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton paved the way for the swinging big-band sounds of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. In contrast, contemporaries Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk developed bebop, with its speedy, dissonant harmonies and improvisations. And Miles Davis heralded the birth of cool jazz, modal jazz and fusion at different points in his career. Famous jazz instrumentalists have tended to be male, yet women have been at the forefront of the genre when it comes to vocalization, from the brassy blues of Bessie Smith to the haunting eclecticism of Nina Simone.
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