Classic Albums – Monk’s Music

As I write this, the UK is slowly emerging from Lockdown and punters are venturing out to see what is left of what they once took for granted. During all of this strange time, I have been reading the book ‘Thelonius Monk – The Life and Times of an American Original’ by Robin. D.G. Kelley. At nearly 600 pages it is a forensic study of the great American jazz pianist, who is someone that has intrigued me since I got into the music of jazz. A fascinating read that leaves no one in any doubt that Monk was indeed a true originator and was among the founding fathers of Be Bop.

Thelonius Sphere Monk was born in North Carolina in 1917, but he and his family moved to New York as a youngster and it was in that city that he would go on to make his name. He picked up tunes by ear on the piano from the age of 6, and took over his sisters piano lessons from the age of 11/12, but his teacher knew Monk was going to leave him behind, he was that good. He was also too much of a free spirit to be restrained by classes for too long.

After playing on the road in churches ‘with a preacher lady’ up and down the land in his late teens, he returned to New York at 19, and played as the house pianist at Minton’s, the legendary club that marked the beginnings of Be Bop.  In various line-ups that live on in the annuls of jazz history, Monk and his unorthodox style held his own and much more with names such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, all of whom passed through at one time or the other to have a play.

Thelonius had a distinct style all of his own off the stage too. Berets, bamboo rimmed glasses, over sized suits and a goatee all went into his naturally hip look. His fashion sense had an influence on the look of the others too, though as with his influential tunes, credit wasn’t always sent his way.

He signed for Blue Note in 1947 and he began to record. Sadly, sales were poor. In many ways, he was way too ahead of the curve and playing a style of music that only a few understood, let alone go out and buy.

To this day, his piano sound can be tricky for ‘newbies’ to get their head around. On many occasions I have heard him referred to as a ‘Hip Les Dawson’, which is a cute, if cutting description, but one that ignores the real skill beneath the work that Monk produced.

Classic jazz tunes such as ‘Straight No Chaser’
‘Crepuscule with Nellie’ ‘In Walked Bud’ ‘Trinkle Tinkle’ ‘Round Midnight’ ‘Ruby, My Dear’ and ‘Well, You Needn’t’ have without doubt, stood the test of time and the number of recordings of his compositions by other artists, is second only to the great Duke Ellington. This is an even bigger feat when you consider the Duke composed over a thousand tracks, whereas Monk only had around seventy to his name.

Life carried on as he waited for his break and the recognition he craved. He married Nellie in 1949 and they had two children, a son, Thelonius Jnr, known as Toot and a daughter Barbara, known as Boo Boo.

Monk then moved to Prestige Records in 1952 and worked with the likes of Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey. In Paris in 1954 he met Baroness Pannonica ‘Nica’ de Koenigswarter a member of the Rothschild family and a massive jazz fan, who would become his best friend and a massive supporter of not only Monk personally, but also his music.

He was on the move again in 1955, this time to Riverside and continued to release, at the time anyway, undervalued albums. His compositions were so complex, that the top line players in the studio with him struggled on many occasions to complete the tunes.

Recognition finally came his way from 1957 when his residency at The Five Spot Club began to draw full houses, as the punters finally caught up with his sound, as well as garnering glowing reviews to ensure solid word of mouth publicity.

In the early line-ups at The Five Spot, his work with a young John Coltrane was particularly admired. Monk was also known for getting up mid song and dancing if the line up  ‘hit’ the song perfectly, literally making him dance for joy. ‘I don’t need to play if I’m smiling’ he said.

From 1959, a regular face in the line up was saxophonist Charlie Rouse who had the knack of ‘getting’ the complex tunes that his bandleader came up with.

Monk achieved a well-paid move to Columbia Records in 1962 and he was then constantly on the road as gigs come in. His reputation grew and grew and he was soon travelling regularly all over Europe and the rest of the world.

Indeed he was by now a big enough name in US culture to feature on the cover of Time magazine in 1964, one of only a handful of jazz musicians ever to do so.

Monk was often fragile mentally however. He was troubled at times all through the 50s but as the late 60s hit, mental illness now sometimes enveloped him. It is thought that he suffered from being Bi Polar, as well as a manic-depressive, with schizophrenic tendencies. Whatever it was, at times, it resulted in Monk literally not talking to anyone for days. Eventually he all but disappeared from the music scene in mid the 1970s. ‘Tell ‘em I’m retired’

He spent the last six years of his life living with his friend Nica out in Englewood New Jersey, where she and his wife Nellie cared for him till the end of his life aged 64 in 1982.

So, for this album of the month, I’m going back to the Riverside years and taking a look at ‘Monk’s Music’ from 1957. I would have bought this album in Rays Jazz Shop on Shaftesbury Avenue in London and knowing me then, it would have been the album cover that caught my eye and dictated the purchase.

It shows Monk looking so cool, whilst sitting in a child’s red wagon. The photographer’s name I found out many years later was Paul Weller. I kid you not. For some reason, even then with my uneducated ears, I knew Monk was important and to stick with him, even though at times, I struggled.  Once I got used to his style of playing, it was a done deal, and more Monk albums were eagerly selected and purchased.

So back we go to New York on June 25th and 26th 1957. In the septet line up we have Coleman Hawkins, Gigi Gryce and John Coltrane on Saxes, Art Blakey on drums, Wilbur Ware on bass, & Ray Copeland on trumpet.

Gigi Gryce arranged the tunes, with Orrin Keepnews producing the all but one original Monk tunes selected for this session.

Side One – Track One
I instantly knew ‘Abide With Me’ from the numerous FA Cup finals I watched as a kid. It was a melody and lyric that always brought a lump to my throat and that happens again here, as just the brass section kick off on this old hymn. A W.H.Monk wrote it, though the two were not related as far as anyone knows. Hairs on the back of my neck still rise up when I hear this particular version.

Next up 11 minutes and 24 seconds of ‘Well You Needn’t’.’

Blakey has it all swinging along nicely from the start. Monk then breaks into one of his engrossing solos, before at 3.11 he shouts ‘Coltrane! Coltrane!’ at the nodding out sax player, who was still suffering from the effects of his heroin addiction. So the great Trane is a little late entering the fray, but he is very identifiable once he gets there. He in turn hands on to Copeland who blasts the tune along into an Art Blakey solo of the highest order. Then up steps ‘Bean’, Coleman Hawkins to you and me. A long favourite musician of Monk’s, Hawkins ‘old schools’ the tune onwards.

All are joined again at the end.

Hawkins then takes on ‘Ruby My Dear’ from the start, and is a lovely thing to behold. Playing behind him, Monk certainly finds the places to punctuate a master at work. There are some lovely moments listening to a jazz style from a few years earlier meeting the jazz of ‘now’. Monk takes the song on and then the two meet in a tie at the finish.

We flip over to find…

‘Off Minor’ is waiting for us. This was like no other jazz of the time and despite how odd it must have sounded to some ears back then, for me it swings nicely. Hawkins rasps into it as Monk tickles it along. Copeland hits some very nice lines, and sounds very much at home here. Monk, never one to compromise, finds the holes in between some nice stick work from Blakey and bass graft from Ware. They all explode together at the end, and I guarantee you the listener will toe tap to the end.

‘Epistrophy’ stuns you for a few seconds as you take in the refrain and try to make sense of it. By the time Coltrane kicks in on the tune, you are totally drawn in and there is no way out, Jack. This is masterful stuff. Each member of the line up, then take their turn in showing their interpretation of the central theme that underlines the whole piece. This is funky to me, and damned funky at that.

We end with ‘Crepuscule With Nellie’, which was written by Monk for his wife of that name (Nellie, not Crepuscule) it is a plaintive aural love letter to his beloved and it is a lovely thing.

Here’s one for the train spotters out there. This song though mentioned on the sleeve, didn’t actually make it on the stereo version of this album, although it did make an appearance on the mono version. I’ll be asking questions later. Chuff, chuff, and all aboard.

So, there you have Monk in all his pomp and an album I have cherished for years now.  And I can promise you, once you ‘get ‘ Monk; you stay ‘got.’ As the great man himself once said…

The piano ain’t got no wrong notes.

The Mumper of SE5*

*I dedicate this particular blog to my friend Al Calnan, who died this year from the results of Covid-19. It was Al who bought me the book token as a birthday gift, with which I purchased the Kelley book I mentioned at the top.

Al was a good soul and I shall miss him. May he rest in peace.



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