Archive for Blue Monk

Eccentric Sphere

Posted in Jazz with tags , on February 21, 2009 by telescoper

Some weeks ago I posted a clip of Billie Holliday and Lester Young that was part of a 1958 TV programme called Sounds of Jazz. I found another clip from that show and decided to put it on here because it’s absolutely fascinating. The star this time is the great Thelonious Monk, whose middle name was Sphere.

Thelonious Monk was a unique musician. His remarkable self-taught style of piano playing was unlike that of anyone who came before him. Look at his hands in this clip and you’ll see that his fingers are straight as he plays: he uses them a bit like mallets in order to get such a percussive sound from the instrument (although the audio is a bit muffled on this track).

Monk was often called “The High Priest of Bop” and regarded as one of the leaders of the post-war bebop revolution in Jazz alongside Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Actually, I don’t think Monk ever really played bebop: the archetypal bop pianist was undoubtedly Bud Powell whose style was quite different to Monk. But the “High Priest” tag owed at least something to his eccentric personality: he hardly ever spoke and, aside from his music, he communicated mainly through his choice of hat.

Monk’s piano style is hard to describe – his wife Nellie once described it as “Melodious Thunk” – but I’ve always loved his music. To me his solos sound like someone talking directly at you in a strange and wonderful language that you don’t quite understand but which sounds beautiful anyway. His use of syncopation is quite different from the usual bebop musicians and it seems, to me anyway, to echo the rhythms of everyday speech. But, above all, when you hear Monk play the piano, you know immediately who it is. He had many admirers, but nobody could play like him. He was a genius.

In later life his behaviour became disturbingly erratic; he would sometimes stand up in the middle of a performance and go wandering around the stage.  His music also deteriorated, I think, from the early sixties onwards. His best records are from the 40s and 50s. I think it was generally assumed that he had a drugs problem, which he may well have had, but it was eventually realised that he was suffering from a serious mental illness. Although attempts were made to treat this, he stopped playing in the 1970s and lived out the rest of his as a recluse.

I remember very well the day he died in February 1982. It was during the Newcastle Jazz Festival and on the day when the great British jazz pianist Stan Tracey was due to give a concert there. As we took our seats in the Newcastle Playhouse for the gig, an announcement was made that Thelonious Monk had died. Stan Tracey, for whom Monk had been a major musical inspiration, responded to the occasion by playing two sets exclusively consisting of tunes by his hero. It was one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to and remains strong in my memory to this day.

That also reminds me to say that as well as being a completely unique and individualistic piano player, Thelonious Monk was also a great Jazz composer who penned some of the great modern standards of the idiom: ‘Round Midnight, Straight No Chaser, Epistrophy, the list is substantial. And then of course there is the tune he plays on this clip which became something of a signature tune.

Off the record, I don’t think it’s completely fair to say that Thelonious actually wrote Blue Monk. The main theme was in fact borrowed from an earlier tune called Pastel Blue written by the trumpeter Charlie Shavers. It’s basically a straightforward 12 bar blues, lacking the twists and turns  and stops and starts of his more typical compositions, but Monk recorded more varied versions of this tune than practically any other. This clip is a short rendition, but it’s fascinating to see the other characters in shot. Sitting at Monk’s piano looking straight at him is none other than Count Basie, and we also get a glimpse of blues singer Joe Turner standing at the side. Later on, there’s a shot of the great saxophonist Coleman Hawkins clearly enjoying the music as I hope you will.