Tuesday, October 10, 2017
100th Birthday Fedora Tip To Thelonious Monk
"Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order. I felt I learned from him in every way--through the senses, theoretically, technically. I would talk to Monk about musical problems, and he would sit at the piano and show me the answers just by playing them. I could watch him play and find out the things I wanted to know. Also, I could see a lot of things that I didn't know about at all." - John Coltrane (1960, in Downbeat Magazine)
With the understanding that whenever Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog posts about music, all readers BUT musicians appear to go away, we salute the one, the only Thelonious Sphere Monk, born on October 10, 1917. 100th birthday tributes are pouring in for the genius of modern music from NPR, the Mercury News and the Monk Institute, just three among many kudos from around the world. Jazz At Lincoln Center has been presenting the Thelonious Monk Festival, a series of concerts in tribute.
The prolific and original pianist-composer-bandleader - as well as a mathematician, ping-pong champ and chess master - is much celebrated 100 years after his birth. This was not so much the case during his heydey, which extended from the latter 1940's through the mid-1960's.
Fortunately for present-day music lovers, a good many complete concerts and television shows featuring Thelonious Monk and his Quartet are on YouTube. Monk's last concerts were in 1975.
The 1940's pop culture and music writers who covered jazz in the post-WW2 era were definitely interested in the trendiness of it all and being in on the shiniest, hippest new thing, but seemed to entirely miss out on who Monk was. Monk was dubbed "The High Priest Of Bebop" and, while this made great copy, it was also a big fat swing and a miss as far as comprehending what his music was about and why he was important.
For this music aficionado, Thelonious Monk's importance was not just his ability to create an original, very specific compositional style and musical universe, much as Duke Ellington had, but his knack for synthesizing ideas from highly varied sources (Fats Waller, Willie "The Lion" Smith, James P. Johnson, Earl Hines) and keeping the tradition alive while creating something entirely original, new and different in the process. This is also true of Monk's renditions of standards by other composers.
The following page, Monk bandmate Steve Lacy's jottings of Thelonious' handwritten guidelines and advice for group members still constitutes a primer for anyone who is playing music in an ensemble or otherwise working in non-WWE variants on the arts. His philosophy of music, life and art informs all of it.
Even 70 years after the release of Thelonious Monk: Genius Of Modern Music on Blue Note Records, his compositions are frequently performed but not necessarily entirely understood, even by world-class musicians. In the composer's words, "when you're swinging, swing some more!"
This is because Monk's compositions, even the simplest ones, remain difficult to play but easy to botch! Incredible music . . . and not for the dilettante or amateur!
2017 turns out to be the centennial for Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Dean Martin as well.