Thelonious Monk : American Composer

Masters of American Music

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Thelonious Monk

Barry Harris

Billy Taylor

Coleman Hawkins

Randy Weston

Ben Riley

Program notes

The pianistic ringleader of the bebop revolution, Thelonious Monk is Jazz’ first major composer after Duke Ellington. 

With Thelonious Monk III as an integral on-screen presence, we investigate the artistry of Thelonious Monk. The filmmakers visit the neighborhoods in which Monk lived and played—first, growing up on San Juan Hill in Manhattan; Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem; the famed 52nd St., as well as West 63rd St. in Manhattan, which has been renamed Thelonious Sphere Monk Street.

Through a great deal of carefully selected clips of international performances and on camera interviews conducted expressly for this production, as well as Monk protege Randy Weston performing the "stride" piano tradition, himself and his own "Zulu" this sixty minute film will thrill and inform the viewer with a refreshing approach.

Thelonious Sphere Monk was a most original talent. Unlike almost every other jazzman, Monk was not only a productive musician after nearly thirty years of musical activity, but remained a growing artist— exploring his art and extending his range. Through the more personal and conversational style of documentary, Thelonious Monk provides the first fully rounded portrait of Monk, a terribly misunderstood man and musician. 

Frequently Thelonious Monk has been shown to be not simply an eccentric but, in fact, crazy. The witty Monk could be a master of put-on and frequently displayed antics at the expense of those present.

Born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 1917 he was brought to New York as an infant. Beginning the piano at age six, and studying it formally a few years later. At Stuyvesant High School, he excelled at mathematics and physics. Early musical experiences included playing the organ in church and touring with an evangelist. “She preached and healed and we played,” he said.

His early playing placed his piano style historically and established his heritage in jazz. His development of the Harlem stride style of James P. Johnson, Willie “the Lion” Smith, and Fats Waller, were touchstones he never lost. The core of Monk’s music is a rhythmic virtuosity. He is a master of displaced accents, shifting time meters, shaded delays and anticipations. His humor shines through in many of his classics. 

He cut his teeth playing with Lucky Millender’s orchestra in 1942, with the first great saxophonist Coleman Hawkins’ combo in 1944 and Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in 1946, but it was through his role as pianist in the house band at Minton’s Playhouse that he became involved in the modern jazz movement. By supplying raw material which served as a base for the new improvisation he served an important catalyst in the development of the music that became known as bebop. There is no doubt that Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Charlie Parker were all greatly affected and enriched by their associations with Monk.

Thelonious Monk explored an unorthodox musical talent with a totally unorthodox fingering at the piano. In the early fifties, Monk’s music and his recordings were misunderstood and ignored. But the recordings continued to show growth. He endured years of neglect, isolation and even disparagement until the late fifties. Rediscovered in the late ‘50s following his heralded engagements at the Five Spot in New York, Monk was now employing a young tenor titan, John Coltrane.

Compositions like “‘Round Midnight,” “Straight, No Chaser,” “Ruby, My Dear,” “Well, You Needn’t,” “Crepuscule With Nellie,” “Blue Monk,”—are standards and covered by hundreds of artists the world over. His renditions of Bing Crosby’s “Just A Gigolo” and the standard “Lulu's Back In Town”  rewrote those songs.

In 1964, Thelonious Monk had “arrived” appearing on the cover of Time Magazine. Monk’s artistry continued to deepen and grow. While virtually all of the modern jazz leaders had either died, coasted on their laurels or attempted the insidious fusion stylings, Monk maintained his singularly original vision.

Program: © Multiprises, LLC


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