‘The piano ain’t got no wrong notes’, Thelonious Monk once observed. Born 100 years ago this week, Monk was there at the beginnings of bebop in the 1940s, though he probably has never received the acclaim bestowed upon fellow bebop pioneers such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
It is common to describe Monk’s playing as ‘angular’, ‘splintered’ and ‘percussive’. And it is – complex, sometimes dissonant, with its odd accents, sudden changes and silences. But yet… ‘The piano ain’t got no wrong notes’. There is magic in his work. And melody. Monk conjured up melodies like few others. His compositions are few – only around 70 in all. Yet, he is one of the most recorded of jazz compositionists. His back catalogue may be small, but it is bjewelled with standards – ’Round Midnight,’ ‘Blue Monk,’ ‘Straight No Chaser,’ ‘Epistrophy,’ ‘Pannonica’ and ‘Bemsha Swing’.
The roots of Monk’s style are in stride, the hard, rhythmic piano music that came out of Harlem in the1920s and 1930s, popularized by musicians such as James P Johnson and Fats Waller. As Robin Kelley puts it in Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, his wonderful biography:
What Monk did was take the oldest, rooted tradition of the piano, in Harlem, New York, all over the country. And then he combined it with a future we have yet to achieve. It’s collapsing space and time. And his whole approach to the piano is one that brings past and present and future together in one. And he had never ever left his roots as a stride pianist — all the way to the very last tune he ever played.
So, in the week when Monk would have been 100, some Monk classics.
Straight No Chaser
Brilliant Corners (album)
With John Coltrane (album)
The image of Thelonious Monk is from his 1965 album, Monk.