Archive for Thelonious Monk

Bloomdido – In Memoriam Charlie Parker

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on March 12, 2015 by telescoper


Today marks the 60th anniversary of the death of the great saxophonist Charlie Parker (“Bird”) on 12th March 1955. I’ve written quite a few posts relating to Charlie Parker over the years but today has provided a good excuse to spend my lunchtime writing another one, this time featuring one of my favourite tracks from one of my favourite albums. First released in 1952 but in fact recorded in two separate sessions in 1949 and 1950, the album Bird and Diz was actually the last studio album made under the joint leadership of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the two main architects of the bebop revolution; the track I’ve picked has the added advantage of featuring another great musical genius on piano, Thelonious Monk.

The Charlie Parker composition Bloomdido is yet another of his variations on the blues, though this one is a bit less intricate than some of the others he wrote. Here are the chords for Bloomdido:


You can see that the progression is based around the standard three chords of a blues in B♭. The foundation is a  “tonic” chord (T) based on the root note of whatever key it’s played in, in this case B♭. This sometimes a basic triad consisting of the first, third and five notes of a major scale starting on that note or, as in this example,  including the dominant 7th so it’s B♭7. The next chord is the subdominant chord  (S), shifting things up by a perfect fourth relative to the tonic, in this case an E♭7 and then finally we have the dominant (D) which brings us up by a fifth from the original root note, in this case F7.

The basic blues sequence in B♭ would be four bars of B♭7 (T), two of E♭7 (S), back to B♭7 (T) for two, then the characteristic bluesy cadence returning to two bars of  B♭7 (T) via one bar each of F7 (D) and E♭7 (S). The sequence for Bloomdido has a few alterations, including a characteristic turnaround at the end instead of the tonic, but is otherwise fairly recognizable. I guess the first part of the title  is a play on the blues origin too, though I wonder if the second part suggests that some of the alterations are inspired by the A-section of the  Juan Tizol standard Perdido?

Some people tell me they find Charlie Parker’s music “too technical” and that somehow if music “needs to be explained” it’s not good music. I don’t understand that attitude at all. I find this music so fascinating and exciting to listen to that I want to try to dig a little bit into it and find out what’s going underneath the surface. It’s particularly striking what a difference a few substitutions and passing chords can make to the overall harmonic “feel” of a piece like this compared to a standard blues sequence, for example. But you don’t need to study the chords to appreciate the sheer beauty of the music that Charlie Parker built on these harmonic foundations; his solo on this track, as on so many others he recorded in his short life,  is just sublime even if you don’t realise how hard it is to play! I guess it all depends whether your way of enjoying a thing is to sit back and let it wash over you, or for it to inspire you to find out more. Many of the physicists I know are deeply interested in music. Perhaps that’s because they’re the sort of people who don’t just think “wow that’s beautiful”, they tend to think “wow that’s beautiful – how does it work?”.

Charlie Parker and Albert Einstein died in the same year, just over a month apart, the former in March 1955 and the latter in April. They were two very different geniuses but it’s as difficult to imagine physics without  Einstein as jazz without Bird.


Posted in Jazz with tags , , on July 19, 2012 by telescoper

Just a gigolo

Posted in Jazz with tags , on March 30, 2011 by telescoper

Much of Thelonious Monk‘s recorded output was based on his own original compositions, which include such classics as Bemsha Swing, ‘Round Midnight, Epistrophy, Brilliant Corners and Straight, No Chaser, but this is an exception to that rule. Just a gigolo is a little ballad that he took a bit of a shine to relatively early on in his career and performed impromptu versions of it on many subsequent occasions. Monk’s unique style is a joy to listen to, and this clip gives you a chance to see him too – watching him play the piano always makes me think of a kitten playing with a ball of string. For all the genius that he was, and all the problems he had with his own mental health, he never lost sight of the child within himself.

Now this is what I call awesome


I Mean You

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on March 8, 2011 by telescoper

Another Thelonious Monk tune, this time I Mean You, played by the superb British pianist Stan Tracey, who will be 75 later this year. He’s not very well known outside the UK, but I think he’s as good as any living jazz piano player anywhere in the world. See if you agree. This is just a fragment of a performance, recorded in London about 5 years ago, in which he demonstrates the highly unusual technique he uses to make music that’s inspired by Monk and Duke Ellington but which nevertheless manages be always uniquely Stan Tracey…


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.