Thelonious Monk's Quiet, Slow Conquest of the World

For decades a respected but somewhat eccentric figure even within the jazz scene, the pianist and composer is at the peak of his influence as he reaches his centennial this month.

The peak of Thelonious Monk’s fame came in 1964, in his 47th year, when his painted portrait—dourly glowering or shyly guarded, depending on the beholder—improbably graced the cover of Time magazine.

Though widely respected by musicians, the pianist and composer had always remained an outlier even in the jazz world, set apart by his singular musical vision as well as his eccentricity, yet his Time cover seemed to represent his ascension to the heights of American culture as a whole.

When the cover was slated to run in November 1963, the nation’s No. 1 hit was the old standard “Deep Purple,” and jazz still seemed dominant. But after John Kennedy was shot, Time bumped Monk. By the time the story ran in February 1964, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had begun a dominant run as the Beatles’ first No. 1 in the United States. Jazz was over as a mainstream force in American culture and so, arguably, was Monk. From then until his death at just 64, in 1982, he struggled increasingly with ailments physical and mental, stopped writing new music, experienced increasing critical disdain, and finally disappeared from view for nearly a decade.

Where is Monk today? This month marks his centennial—his birthday was October 10—and given his importance to jazz and American music broadly, the occasion is strangely, disturbingly quiet. There are a handful of commemorations, including some ambitious ones, but they do not match what other, similar icons received—for example, Duke Ellington’s 1999 centennial, or Louis Armstrong’s in 2001, which coincided with Ken Burns’s Jazz series. Perhaps, however, the subdued celebration looks less like neglect and more like evidence of how Monk, once the quintessential outsider, has come to dominate American jazz, 100 years after his birth and 35 years after his death.

Today, Monk is by far the most covered jazz composer. His catalog—some 60 to 70 songs, many of them familiar to even moderately serious jazz fans—forms the spine of the contemporary repertoire. That has also made him a major influence on every composer working in jazz and improvised music. In 2006, he was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.

“We’d be seeing more for Monk’s 100th birthday if we hadn’t been celebrating Monk more than any other jazz composer for the last 20 or 30 years,” the pianist, composer, and writer Ethan Iverson, tells me.

Monk’s piano style, with its crunchy dissonances, forceful attack, open spaces, and off-kilter rhythms, has deeply imprinted itself both on pianists and on other instrumentalists and vocalists. Fellow pianist Jason Moran combines Monk’s wry hipness, virtuosity, and feel for the blues, including in a powerful multimedia work, “In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall, 1959,” that explores his relationship with Monk’s music, the history of black America, and recordings of Monk rehearsing and dancing, the sounds of which Moran’s band blends with its own. Vijay Iyer’s avant-garde excursions borrow from Monk’s percussive experimentalism. The greatest living jazz musician, Sonny Rollins, was a sideman and student of Monk’s, while Kamasi Washington, the music’s hottest young property, recently told The Root, “If you’re a jazz musician and you think you’re not influenced by Thelonious Monk, either you’re not a jazz musician or you are influenced by Thelonious Monk.”

Philosophically, the current moment in jazz seems to reflect Monk’s ethos, too. At the time of the Ellington centennial, Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, a repertory big-band in Duke’s style, bestrode the world. Today’s scene is vibrant but far more splintered, tending toward experimental small groups pushing the boundaries of improvised music in ways that Monk would seem to have appreciated.

But Monk’s continued sway is inseparable from the undiminished appeal of his own work. His songs are instantly catchy and hummable; his work captivates hardbitten contemporary music fans, jazz-and-blues purists, and non-jazz listeners alike. The saxophonist Branford Marsalis tells of playing as the opening act for Kool and the Gang. Marsalis and his band knew their way around R&B and tried to show it, but the crowd was barely paying attention. Marsalis’s band switched gears, taking up Monk’s “Rhythm-a-Ning,” and suddenly the audience was present: “They went fucking bananas.”

The Monk songbook ranges from “’Round Midnight,” an achingly beautiful ballad packed with harmonic twists, to blues, like the fast, boppish “Straight, No Chaser.” Robin D.G. Kelley, author of the definitive Monk biography, notes that Monk grew up near slow-rolling trains in both Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and Manhattan’s San Juan Hill neighborhood, and many of his works interpolate their rhythm, like the rollicking “Little Rootie Tootie,” accented with the locomotive-horn bursts. Monk songs might hide challenging intervallic jumps behind a playful melody, like “Misterioso,” or hide mischief behind menace, like “Friday the 13th.”

This whimsy is deceptively simple. “Monk is the perfect avant-garde guy because you can dance to it. Your child can sing the songs,” Iverson says. “How do you write a hit song? I don’t know. That’s some mystical stuff, whether you’re Franz Schubert or Lennon-McCartney. He wrote 60 of them. He wrote 60 hit songs that are in some way dealing with the avant-garde.”

Iverson, with Aaron Greenwald of Duke Performances, co-curated “Monk@100,” a 10-day festival that is the most ambitious centennial event. Running through October 26, the festival centers on week-long residencies by the saxophonist J.D. Allen’s trio, playing with a series of guests, and Iverson doing the same, as well as several other events, including a duo performance by Moran and the newly minted MacArthur “Genius” grantee Tyshawn Sorey. Moran, who directs the jazz program at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., also hosted a birthday concert with fellow pianist Kenny Barron. Lincoln Center has hosted several centennial celebrations, including a special symposium. New York City venue the Jazz Standard is commemorating Monk with performances all month. And the New England Conservatory is throwing concerts and lectures in mid-October.

Several fresh releases showcase the disparate ways musicians are grappling with Monk’s legacy. Joey Alexander, a 14-year-old Indonesian piano prodigy, was discovered when Wynton Marsalis saw a YouTube video of him playing “’Round Midnight.” On Joey.Monk.Live!, Alexander interprets seven Monk favorites, including “’Round Midnight.” Alexander’s impressive talent shows through, though he seems more interested in using Monk’s melodies as departure points than engaging with his pianistic or rhythmic approaches.

More unusual is the second disc from John Beasley’s Monk’estra, a follow-up to last year’s Grammy nominee. Beasley and band swing through and often revamp Monk tunes. The trumpeter Dontae Winslow raps over a breakbeat–enhanced “Brake’s Sake,” “I Mean You” turns into a funk jam, and Regina Carter’s violin makes “Crepuscule With Nellie” somehow even more noirish.

The most interesting, if not most immediately accessible, is Reflections and Meditations on Monk by Wadada Leo Smith, the avant-garde horn man who is enjoying an astonishing stretch of productivity and quality in his seventies. Smith plays several Monk ballads and originals, working in the unusual format of solo trumpet. Hearing the harmonically rich compositions without accompaniment is stimulatingly disorienting, and places a heavy demand on Smith to carry things along—a demand he’s up to.

Monk’s posthumous journey from outsider to insider was unexpected and meandering. He studied music as a child in New York—racism-tinged myths about Monk as an untutored idiot savant of the piano still persist—and in his teens spent two years on the road backing a traveling evangelist. He brought to jazz a musical sensibility from the black church, a study of sacred music (later recording the hymn “Abide With Me”), a love of Rachmaninoff and Chopin, and a mastery of the by-then-archaic, two-handed stride-piano style. By the early 1940s, he was the house pianist at Minton’s, a Harlem nightclub considered the birthplace of bebop—the highly technical, often fast-paced style that developed in the wake of the big-band swing era.

Monk never fit perfectly into the scene. Unlike Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, he often favored slower, sometimes stuttering tempos and shunned show-offy virtuosity. Beboppers readily adopted his compositions but sometimes questioned his proficiency (or just listenability) at the piano. On the one hand, Monk’s style worked ideally for his music; on the other hand, there’s plenty of evidence his supposedly limited abilities were anything but.

Monk could sound almost naïve or unlearned, but as Stanley Crouch has written, “He is the first Picasso of jazz, the first Afro-American musician to develop a style that willfully shunned overt virtuosity in favor of a control of the elements of the music in fresh ways.” Kelley says homemade tapes capture Monk romping through challenging material but struggling to play his own work as he intended it. “It was much harder for Monk to play Monk than it was for him to play like Art Tatum. He didn’t have trouble playing fast tempos. He loved James P. Johnson and he could sound like James P. Johnson,” Kelley says. “He worked his ass off to make his music sound the way it sounded.”

Miles Davis—who supposedly nearly came to blows with Monk during a 1954 recording session, after he demanded the pianist lay out during trumpet solos—helped make Monk’s “’Round Midnight” a standard (Iverson has counted around 1,800 recordings), but jettisoned Monk’s inventive harmonies, deeming them incorrect.

“What Miles really meant to say was, ‘I can’t hear what your changes are, so I’m going to take your changes and make it more palatable,’” Marsalis says. “Right now, Miles won that argument. Most people that play ‘’Round Midnight’ play Miles’s changes and not Monk’s changes, because they’re still too fucking weird.”

Monk’s career was hobbled by personal problems as well. He never developed the same heroin problems that Parker, Davis, and others did, but in 1951 Monk took the rap when cops found a friend’s heroin in his car. He lost his cabaret card, which permitted him to play in New York clubs, endangering his livelihood. (Monk’s career is unimaginable without the support of three women—his mother Barbara, his wife Nellie, and his patron the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter—who provided the stability and money that allowed him to work as he chose.) After regaining his cabaret card, he played a legendary run at the Five Spot Café in 1957. In 1959, he put together an astonishing set of arrangements for a 10-piece band at Town Hall in New York. But critics began to complain that Monk wasn’t doing anything new, or that he played with subpar sidemen. The notable exceptions are extremely notable—for both Rollins and John Coltrane, stints with Monk were transformative.

On the one hand, Kelley says, “Monk would be challenged on this and he’d say, ‘I keep playing the same things because I want people to be able to hear. They haven’t heard it yet.’” Yet Monk found himself struggling to compose because of new demands for him to travel and perform. He’d always been a homebody—he lived with his mother until her death, with his wife simply moving in with the Monks—and in the 1960s, he began experiencing worse symptoms of bipolar disorder, as well as deteriorating physical condition. In a gorgeous 2007 essay, Sam Stephenson chronicles one of Monk’s later gigs, a return to his home state in 1970, but after 1971 he disappeared from the public. Thus the Time appearance, which might have seemed a turning point after decades of ups-and-downs, was instead a high-water mark.

The magazine’s breathless cover story also popularized the notion that Monk was an eccentric, an image crafted from a mix of fact, fiction, and intentional myth-making. Every discussion of Monk’s weirdness begins with his unusual first name—like his work, it is arresting, unplaceable in time or origin, at once dignified and whimsical—keeps up its pace with his middle name, “Sphere,” and lands with a powerful clang, like a well-placed piano chord, on his percussive single syllable of a surname, with its invitation to puns about his seclusion, mysticism, or aura. The eccentricity was not entirely fabricated. Monk’s struggles with his mental health did sometimes affect his behavior. He also behaved unusually on the bandstand at times, dancing to the side of the stage while sidemen soloed, but the wild-man aspect of these jigs was overstated: Kelley notes that Monk never missed the beat to jump back in.

At first, Monk embraced the “weird” label, which Kelley traces to a well-intentioned 1948 press release that depicted him that way; later, he bridled against it. Stephenson, who listened to hours of tapes of Monk privately discussing and rehearsing for the Town Hall gig in photographer W. Eugene Smith’s New York apartment for his Jazz Loft Project, says many of Monk’s behaviors were performative. “What I learned is that he really wasn’t all that strange,” Stephenson says.

Yet Monk was also unusual in his relationship with attention. Despite stereotypes about cool detachedness, most jazz musicians of his caliber cultivate the spotlight and carefully curate an identity: Armstrong the grinning entertainer and virtuoso; Ellington the suave, debonair maestro; Davis the often prickly, image-obsessed chameleon. Monk never courted publicity in the same way, and often seemed to flee from it.

Monk’s laid-back, somewhat detached approach to the world is reflected in the way his family has stewarded his legacy. Rather than focus on merchandizing Monk, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz emphasizes education, and its annual competition has become a reliable tool for launching young stars. (Perhaps there should be more focus on the money side. In a worrying sign, Nate Chinen reports that there are no plans for a competition this year, just as there was none last year, with financial strains being one reason.) Maybe it’s fitting that the musician’s legacy is being marked with a range of smaller celebrations, rather than a few big blowouts. “I spent a good 15 years living with Monk in a sense, and I think these are the kinds of events he would appreciate,” Kelley says. That slow, steady, unfussy approach is what makes Monk’s music swing, and it’s enabled his quiet conquest of jazz, 100 years after his birth.