Hard Be Bop pianist and composer Thelonious Monk once lost his New York Cabaret Card, for several years, because he refused to rat on his friend and fellow musician Bud Powell who had stashed narcotics in his vehicle. But, that wasn’t the only time he bucked authority and wandered on the road less travelled.

Monk’s ingenuity started early. The largely, self-taught musician first tinkered on the ivories at about age six. He was inspired by the brilliant Art Tatum, who captivated the classically-trained Oscar Peterson, and though he appeared to have an incredible ear which allowed him to turn simple melodies inside-out, his genius didn’t end there.

This clever performer and composer would douse his work with humour. Sometimes that meant he would stand up and dance in the middle of an intricate measure, and other times it meant he would deliberately play an out-of-key tone and, instead of resolving it, he would have other players repeat that dissonant error.

Like the great comedic pianist Victor Borge, or the clownish Harpo Marx, Monk also used silence as a means of creating deep tension between passages. Quick successions of notes that would have sounded eerie played too slowly became off-kilter phrases that added tremendous colour to otherwise ordinary passages. Being self-taught may have meant his technique was not stellar, but his interpretations were completely original.

Stylistically, his left hand would subtly shadow the right or embellish or derail that melodic line, through alternate chording. But, always, Monk’s divine talent for creating captivating melody and unorthodox harmony rose above that of many more schooled musicians.

Sought after by his peers - Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, to name just a few - Monk struggled to find commercial success and initially attracted an esoteric crowd. But, than again, that always has been the Achilles heel for jazz artists; those true-blue purists will stick around, but the neophytes are always too lazy.

The trouble is that many people are unwilling to explore a new genre without being spoon-fed. I know, personally, though I do like a few arias, I’m much too impatient to sit through an entire opera and even less willing to learn the back story beforehand. But, let’s face facts. Without a pre-established scheme, new information can be mind boggling.

This seems also true for those attempting to acquire jazz literacy. No one wants to bother learning the standards and so they don’t get why the variations are intellectually stimulating. It’s like watching a baseball game before learning about the positions. How boring is that?

Frequently the delight of improvisational jazz consists of incorporating licks and runs from other tunes. While this could be considered borrowing, stealing or complementing the said song, it has become a fairly standard practice. Many of Monk’s passages have been referenced by others and you can certainly understand why. His approach to improvisation was undeniably unique.

Having been brought up with a father who played piano professionally and loved solo piano recordings, I couldn’t get enough of this stuff. And, Monk, well, he exceeded the blues artists, in terms of complexity, didn’t go too far afield in the jazz arena (I never was too attracted to Keith Jarrett-type compositions) and managed to season his works with class; much as Debussy did with his then-shocking, hollow and somewhat naked harmonies that would have greatly shocked classicists like Bach who was so preoccupied with creating perfect counterpoint for his many students.

Unlike Bach, Monk didn’t really give a hoot whether his notes ran in parallel or contrary motion. Unlike Debussy, Monk experimented with meter incessantly. And, unlike the cover model of Gentleman’s Quarterly, Monk dressed however he damn well-pleased. In fact, the north Coast Brewing Company features a picture on their libation of “Brother Thelonious.” He’s wearing oversized shades. And, like most Be Bop types, he looked majorly cool in a beret or earth-toned fedora.

Like most musicians, Monk experimented in his studio work. In 1944 he recorded with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet. During this era, his work was dominated by creating original melodies and improvisation. His son, T.S. Monk, now a drummer, was also born around this time.

It’s interesting to note, that while other arrangers such as Duke Ellington, produced about 1000 songs, and Monk’s cache consisted of about 70, the later was the second most recorded jazz composer in the States. Pretty impressive for a high-school drop out, eh?

In the early 1950s he collaborated with sax man Sonny Rollins, drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach, engaging in several trio-based projects before signing with Riverside Records. The mid 50s found him creating 'Brilliant Corners' which high-lighted original works. The end of the 50s brought him critical acclaim with the Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall Recordings which featured Hall Overton’s arrangements for horns.

But, of all his works, the compilation album 'Round Midnight' is what I find most captivating. This album incorporates the many psyches and variegated moods of this complicated muse. Unfortunately, 'Straight, No Chaser' with its seemingly irresolvable passages, isn't included; it's one of Monk's most labrynthian tunes, but, brassy, melancholic 'Monk's Mood' is a more than suitable substitute. 'Epistrophy' is slick and mysterious, step-wise and comical and reminds me of Peter Sellers chasing the Pink Panther through a Parisian crime scene. There’s the rambling, funicular and bluesy, ‘Well, You Needn’t’, the trickling, babbling-brook rhythms of ‘Misterioso’ and the ballad ‘Ruby My Dear’ which is dreamy and brimming with repetitive triplets, yet so perfectly constructed, much like ‘Laura’ or ‘Misty’, et al, from the old American Songbook.

The title song, ‘Round Midnight’ is performed with subtle grace; the changes are not too squawking and cacophonic. This classic drew a crowd when Miles Davis, in 1955, employed it to jumpstart the Newport Jazz Fest, as well.

It’s rare to find instrumental music which can make one laugh out loud; when I hear ‘Little Rootie Tootie’ (not on this album, but a seminal arrangement), with its broken chords and clusters that might have sounded because Monk’s elbow slid against a cluster of random notes, the visual slapstick of Buster Keaton rears its head. In that way, Monk’s talent crosses disciplines and eradicates boundaries. Just consider that if a key phrase had happened one second earlier or later, the resulting humour would have been lost. That’s the incredible magic.

In a universe of overproduction, it’s amazing to hear music that poured so sincerely from a single individual. While it’s true that Monk played with orchestras, trios, quartets and septets, I believe his solo piano work was the most impressive because it remained unblemished with nothing available to hide imperfections. And, that is because, when we heard those human imperfections, we felt the power and magnetism of this authentic man and loved it all even more.











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