Mysterious Thelonious: Monk turns 100

Celebrate the 100th birthday of Thelonious Monk by listening, watching, reading, and playing.

Posted by Camille Peters

Thelonious Monk at the piano

Thelonious Sphere Monk is of those rare public figures who is recognizable by silhouette alone. Elements of his trademark style are captured on the 1964 cover of Time magazine featuring Monk: the hat, the beard curling to a point. That Monk is one of only a handful of jazz musicians to ever appear on the cover of Time is a measure of his importance in jazz history.

Today marks the centennial for Monk, a pianist and composer with a reputation for originality and eccentricity. Born on October 10, 1917, Monk got his start as a performer in the early 1940s. He was the house pianist at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, where he played alongside the likes of Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, and Dizzy Gillespie. His influence on the development of bebop can be traced to this period, particularly to the late-night jam sessions at Minton’s. During this early period he also composed some of his most famous tunes, including “‘Round Midnight,” “Blue Monk,” and Epistrophy.” As a composer, he is second only to Duke Ellington in works recorded – especially impressive considering that Monk's compositions number around seventy, compared to over a thousand for Ellington.

Like many jazz musicians of the era, Monk’s career was hampered by police harassment: his cabaret card (which allowed him to perform legally in New York bars) was confiscated twice because of questionable charges brought against him. Yet he was devoted to his music and continued to record and compose through the 1950s. Monk became known for his unique improvisational style: angular melodies, clustered harmonies, and unconventional playing techniques. As he explained to music writer Val Wilmer, I hit the piano with my elbow sometimes because of a certain sound I want to hear, certain chords. You can't hit that many notes with your hands. Sometimes people laugh when I'm doing that. Yeah, let 'em laugh! They need something to laugh at.

By the 1960s, Monk’s genius was widely  though not universally  recognized in the jazz world. And then, in the mid-1970s, he abruptly withdrew from public life. He lived out the rest of his days at the estate of his patron, Baroness Pannonica("Nica")de Koenigswarter. Even after his death in 1982, his compositions and playing style continued to garner acclaim. He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993 and a Pulitzer Special Citation in 2006. There is even a street named after him: a portion of West 63rd Street in Manhattan, where a young Theolonious once lived, was re-named Thelonious Monk Circle. 

Celebrate Monk's birthday courtesy of an Oakland Public Library near you! 

Watch Monk perform live on the DVD Thelonious Monk: Live in '66, and see more on his life in the documentaries Straight, No Chaser, and Thelonious Monk: An American Composer. 

Read more about his life and career: 

Finally, for those intrepid souls who want to play like Monk, you can borrow fake books, transcriptions, and more, including: solos and tunes transcribed by Stuart Isacoff, a Thelonious Monk: Play-a-Long Book & CD set compiled by Aebersold, Thelonious Monk Plays Standards, and Originals and Standards by Monk. Hat and beard are optional.

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