Thelonious Sphere Monk was a highly individualistic American jazz pianist and composer, who has been (mistakenly) dubbed the "high priest of bebop." Although he perfected his style while playing with many bebop greats--who were his contemporaries--at the legendary Minton's Playhouse in Harlem in the early 1940s, his approach was singular and idiosyncratic.
While Monk helped usher in the bebop revolution, his playing did not employ the rapid, almost Baroque solo wizardry that identified compatriots Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell. Rather than spinning a melodic line only in the right hand, he utilized the entire keyboard, and was famous for his use of space and silences.
Monk's compositions and piano style are full of surprise: angular melodic twists, dissonant harmonies (sometimes colourful and poignant) and percussive attack. Visually, he was renowned for his distinctly "sartorial" style in suits, hats and sunglasses (worn indoors). Monk is one of only five jazz musicians to be featured on the cover of TIME.
Monk had a unique improvisational approach, rooted in the blues and the Harlem stride piano school, best epitomized by James P. Johnson. His execution--sometimes fluid and often agitated--is replete with startling, unexpected rhythms, pauses and hesitations. In 1961 he said, "You know, anybody can play a composition and use far-out chords and make it sound wrong. It's making it sound right that's not easy."
He shares with Duke Ellington the distinction of being one of the greatest American composers of the 20th century. The rich imagination and verve of his compositions have earned them everlasting status as contributions to the standard jazz repertoire. Probably his best known - and most covered - piece is 'Round Midnight, a lilting, haunting ballad he wrote in his teens. Orrin Keepnews considered it "one of the most beautiful short pieces of music written in 20th century America." Other standouts are Epistrophy, I Mean You, Off Minor, and Ruby My Dear.
An unfortunate legal tangle forced Monk out of club performances in New York City from 1951-1957. A concentrated period of composing and studio recording resulted. As his records grew in stature and critical acclaim, he gained the freedom to record his own works exclusively. After associations with a number of smaller labels, Monk signed with Columbia Records - one of the four major players in the industry - in 1962. Columbia provided Monk with the advantage of greatly enhanced marketing and promotion.
His best-remembered engagement was a six-month run--which included a blossoming John Coltrane--at the Five Spot Cafe, a celebrated gathering place of jazz icons in Greenwich Village, in 1957.
His December,1963 concert at New York's Philharmonic Hall--a big-band presentation of originals--was a personal and commercial landmark. The classic venue was part of his own neighbourhood, an area he had criss-crossed for years on his long, meditative strolls.
He began to isolate himself from public eye in the mid-1970s, and performed his last concert at Carnegie Hall in March, 1976. Monk passed away of a stroke in February, 1982.
Thelonious Monk's creations were original and universal. In 1993 he was posthumously given the Grammy LIfetime Achievement Award, and in 2006 he received the Pulitzer Prize Special Citation.