Well, you needn’t listen. But you should.
December 18, 2017 10:56 PM   Subscribe

“Who needs Monk?” A few months after what would have been Thelonious’s 100th birthday, All About Jazz provides young musicians with four lessons they should learn from the great pianist’s life and work (in addition to “the not particularly helpful insight that it's good to be a genius”). Also in honor of The Monk Century, pianist Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus, in The New Yorker, tells us to “Think of Thelonious Monk” (while recommending this video performance in particular as “glorious”).

Birthday wishes also come from Malcolm Jones at The Daily Beast, who says “Monk will change your life, even from the grave.” David A. Graham, writing in The Atlantic about “Monk’s quiet, slow conquest of the world.” And Candace Allen in The Guardian: “The demons and obsessions of jazz genius Thelonious Monk.“

Speaking of young musicians, pianist Joey Alexander, the now 14-year-old jazz sensation from Indonesia, has been channeling Thelonious for a number of years. On Monk’s 100th birthday, in a trio setting in NYC, he played the master’s classic composition Epistrophy (co-written with drummer Kenny Clarke).

Previous Monk birthdays, etc., in the blue: 2013. 2011. 2009. 2007. 2006.
posted by LeLiLo (17 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
I'm just going to say, I had a passing acquaintance with jazz and then I watched the Ken Burns work and it came alive for me in a way that it had never before and I've been, well, I won't say a fan, but someone who knows what's going on and can get involved and even seeks it out rather than changing the dial.

I'd likely not know who Monk is or have any context for him if it weren't for this PBS series. And because of that, this post is a thing that I'm happy to see.

So... if you clicked here and are wondering... invest the time to watch Ken Burns' Jazz. It's worth it. And then come back here, and then yay!
posted by hippybear at 11:22 PM on December 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

That video is pretty glorious. I enjoyed it immensely.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:23 PM on December 18, 2017

posted by Freelance Demiurge at 11:39 PM on December 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

Thank you for this post. My gosh I am in awe of Monk, his brilliance was astounding.
I will just leave this here, my favourite live performance by Monk, playing his composition Well, You Needn't, recorded in 1964 at the It Club in Los Angeles. Some of those notes Monk throws out seem to almost hang in the air, don't they.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 1:07 AM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Funny, I really don't care much for jazz (too much self-referential noodling for my taste) but I have long liked Monk. Especially when he is unfettered by the constraints of a combo, like this 1969 tribute to Ellington in Berlin...
posted by jim in austin at 3:31 AM on December 19, 2017

full disclosure: I'm named after a cat I never got, not the piano player. That's why it' s spelled like the Stevie Wonder song from "Blow By Blow".

I thought this (from The Daily Beast article) was very well said:

.....their melodies seemingly broken and mended all at once, with their just-visiting lightness, but with that sense that underneath, girding it all together, is a force like iron

I recall my first impressions on listening to a Monk record. I knew who he was, and that he was important, from Atlanta's H. Johnson, my Virgil into the world of jazz, who always plays "'Round Midnight" at midnight on his Saturday show on WABE. I think what struck me the most was the music's roots in children's song. "Well You Needn't" could be a nursery rhyme. It's such a strong and simple rhythm. Actually I think the record I bought did have "That Old Man" on it, which put this idea in my face.
posted by thelonius at 3:32 AM on December 19, 2017

Monk said 'There is no wrong note, it has to do with how you resolve it'. He almost sounded like a kid taking piano lessons. I could relate to that when I first started playing the piano, because he was decomposing the music while he was playing it. It was like demystifying the sound, because there is a certain veneer to jazz and to any music, after a while it gets traffic rules, and the music takes a backseat to the rules. It's like aerial photography, telling you that this is how we do it. That happens in folk music too. Try playing with a bluegrass group and introducing new ideas. Forget about it. They look at you like you're a communist. On Solo Monk, he appears to be composing as he plays, extending intervals, voicing chords with impossible clusters of notes. 'I Should Care' kills me, a communion wine with a twist. Stride, church, jump rope, Bartok, melodies scratched into the plaster with a knife. A bold iconoclast. Solo Monk lets you not only see these melodies without clothes, but without skin. This is astronaut music from Bedlam.
Tom Waits (again) nails it better than I ever could.
posted by middleclasstool at 5:15 AM on December 19, 2017 [10 favorites]

I have that two disk set Monk Alone which compiles his solo Columbia recordings. Always partial to this take of Ruby, My Dear.
posted by juv3nal at 6:02 AM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Always been a big fan of Monk. I recently listened to the Great Lives episode on him, and it was pretty heartbreaking. I am so sorry that he struggled in life with such pain and difficulty.
posted by lazaruslong at 6:17 AM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Monk said 'There is no wrong note...'

He also said "stop playing all those weird notes, and play the melody."
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:11 AM on December 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

Monk is one of the great creators in human history; we were lucky to have him at all, but I do wish he could have stuck around longer (and been saddled with less shit to deal with). That Ethan Iverson piece is great (as is Iverson himself—I've got his Construction Zone (Originals), Deconstruction Zone (Standards), and The Minor Passions, all of which are amazing). In one of those earlier Monk threads I recommended Steve Lacy's Monk recordings, especially Reflections (Prestige, 1958); now I'll add to that a plug for Monk's Casino, "a live album by German free jazz pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach featuring the complete compositions of Thelonious Monk recorded in Germany in 2003-04 for the Intakt label." It's wildly varying in approach, length, everything; some of the cuts are throwaways, some are deconstructions, some are practically reverential, all are eye-opening, and if you love Monk how can you not want to hear all his compositions played by one (great) group?
posted by languagehat at 7:16 AM on December 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

That Ethan Iverson piece is great

The one by him they printed last month, about Vince Guaraldi, is notable for a vignette of jazz piano player hell: being obliged to play "Linus and Lucy" at parties, for people who clap along with the left hand riff as if its first note is on the downbeat.

I wonder if anyone has recorded "Christmas Time Is Here" in the style of Monk........
posted by thelonius at 7:20 AM on December 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

I love me some Mingus, and "Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus," produced by Hal Willner, opened my eyes and blew my mind to the possibilities of his work in contemporary music. Check out this riff on "Gunslinging Bird."
posted by me3dia at 10:20 AM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Monk said 'There is no wrong note, it has to do with how you resolve it'. (quoted from Waits, above)

“It's not the note you play that's the wrong note – it's the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.” —Miles Davis.

Same thing, however much Davis did not dig Monk's genius.

I'm not the only jazz pianist who has two influences: Monk and everybody else.
posted by kozad at 8:18 PM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I got curious if anyone had made a post about Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild, who helped Monk immensely (including taking a pot bust for him and giving him a safe respite in his final years), and, yes flapjax did.
posted by thelonius at 8:42 PM on December 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also, that Great Lives podcast about Monk I linked above features as the nominating person one Hannah Rothschild, the Baroness’s niece I believe. Some of her anectodtes are amazing.
posted by lazaruslong at 5:22 AM on December 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

> and, yes flapjax did

Ha, and I see I plugged Monk's Casino in that thread too!
posted by languagehat at 11:28 AM on December 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

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