Pianist, composer, iconoclast, and jazz icon Thelonious Sphere Monk has inspired generations of music fans and musicians alike. His indelible compositions are among the most beloved in the jazz pantheon. To commemorate Monk's centennial, explore the "High Priest of Bebop" in this curated exhibit.
"High Priest of Bebop"
Monk's ordained title sums him up well – his mystique, influence and leadership, the innovator of a new, hip approach to jazz called “bebop,” the educator and preacher of this new jazz gospel, and not in some classroom, but at his house and at the club, after hours, teaching young, hungry musicians, many of whom would go on to become jazz “greats” in their own right, like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins... the list goes on and on. Bebop started as art music, the "underground" of jazz to the mainstream swing music, which dominated the 1930s. But bebop would supplant swing, becoming the new vernacular of jazz, and influencing most American music that followed, as this modern jazz language continues to inform funk, R&B, rock, and is heavily sampled in hip hop and beat music to this day.
The Birthplace of Bop
“Can you imagine Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, Don Byas, and Ben Webster on the same little jam session? They had a place called Minton's Playhouse in New York…” (Saxophonist Sonny Stitt). The iconic Harlem jazz club was the hub for bebop throughout the 1940s. Thelonious Monk led the house band, which regularly featured Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Christian, but would also open up into jams, or “cutting sessions” between jazz’s top instrumentalists, each trying to one-up the other, pushing the music ever forward. While the bebop movement took root in other clubs and spaces, but if there was a birthplace for bop, it'd definitely be Minton’s Playhouse. Here, Thelonious Monk (far left) is photographed outside of Minton's with trumpeters Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge, and the club's manager Teddy Hill in 1947.
Monk disciples Randy Weston and Barry Harris, and producer Orrin Keepnews speak to his “unusual” style and approach to piano and jazz in a clip from the award-winning Masters of American Music series.
The Mystique of Monk
“Monk became a template for something beyond Monk, a model for making art that matters… Monk’s music remains open and fresh, radical and relevant, continually lending itself to reinvention. Monk made music that invites you in, and then teases you with its mystery… tunes that are instantly sing-able — children ‘get’ Monk — yet operate as the purest distillations of mood and emotion: the joy, the bounce, the freedom, the struggle and pain.” (Journalist Richard Scheinin) “But there was so much more to digest than just his music. What also grabbed my attention were his style and his aesthetic — his beard and his goatee and his album covers. There was his whole persona — how he danced at the piano, how he lay his hands on the keys and attacked a note.” (Pianist Jason Moran)
One of Monk’s better-known eccentricities was his dancing—right in the middle of a song, he'd stand up off the piano bench and break into dance on the bandstand, often while a horn player was soloing.
In fact, Monk (and his dancing) may have started the hip “strolling,” piano-less trio format, later popularized by Sonny Rollins. Here's Rollins talking about Monk, animated by Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Another of Monk's eccentricities was how he talked – or rather, mumbled – as seen in this clip from his 1968 'Underground' sessions, with famed Columbia Records producer Teo Macero (see: Miles Davis).
The Jazz "Underground"
Speaking of Underground, Thelonious Monk consistently put out some of the most provocative album artwork in jazz, with no better example than Underground, depicting Monk as a French Resistance soldier in World War II. "It may be hard to believe now, but when this album was originally released in 1968, a lot of people, including the people at Columbia Records, seemed more interested in the photograph on the cover than the music in the grooves. To be sure, the cover of Underground - which won a GRAMMY as the year's best - is striking and very clever, an elaborate visual pun on the notion of Thelonious Monk as a soldier in the ‘underground’ of jazz. But the attention focused on it helped obscure the fact that Underground would have been the most noteworthy albums of Monk's career even if it had come in a plain brown wrapper" (Writer/critic Peter Keepnews).
Ahead of His Time
“His late success encouraged the idea that publically unacceptable art needed only time until the unenlightened public came to its senses and accepted it. Monk became, in the traditional European critical perspective prevalent at the time, a rule-breaker, the avant-guardist in the garrett. Because of his eccentricities, he became the image of a bohemian" (The New York Times). It took some time for Thelonious Monk to find commercial success and critical acclaim. An artist ahead of his time, he spent decades scraping by, gig to gig, session to session, trying to support his family and stay true to his path. In these lean years, Monk was helped considerably by Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, known in the jazz community as "Nica." The Baroness helped many jazz musicians in the bebop era, some were homeless, or addicted, and had nowhere else to turn to (Charlie Parker, Bud Powell), and others, like Monk, just needed help paying the bills and supporting their family.
In 1956, Thelonious Monk recorded "Pannonica" for Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. Said Monk: "I think her father gave her that name after a butterfly he tried to catch."
In a talk with The Wall Street Journal, Thelonious Monk III (Monk's son) discusses the encouragement and financial support Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter rendered to Monk and other jazz artists.
What's It Like Working With Monk?
Although Underground is remembered for its provocative album artwork, it quietly marked the final Monk album with saxophonist and longtime collaborator Charlie Rouse. Over a 10-year period, Rouse recorded and toured with Monk, a time he recalled as "...the best years of my musical career. I imagine every musician that worked with Thelonious felt that way, because he brought things out of you that couldn't be brought out. He was... the musician's musician." SFJAZZ has a long history celebrating Thelonious Monk, and it started with a 1988 tribute concert to Monk in the San Francisco Jazz Festival (then called "Jazz In The City") featuring Charlie Rouse, which was recorded and would later be released as 'Epistrophy' on Orrin Keepnews’ Landmark record label. Sadly, it would mark Rouse’s final recording. The sax legend passed away later that year.
In a pre-concert talk, producer Orrin Keepnews asked Charlie Rouse to share “some words about Monk." The conversation was included as the opening track to Rouse's album 'Epistrophy.'
SFJAZZ Collective Plays Monk
The SFJAZZ Collective reimagined the music of Thelonious Monk in 2007, and toured extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe. An all-star ensemble comprising of eight of the finest performer/composers in jazz, the SFJAZZ Collective’s mission each year is to perform fresh arrangements of works by a modern master and newly commissioned pieces by each Collective member. Through this pioneering approach, simultaneously honoring music’s greatest figures while championing jazz’s up-to-the-minute directions, the Collective embodies SFJAZZ’s commitment to jazz as a living, ever-relevant art form. The 2007 lineup featured vibraphone legend and Bay Area resident Bobby Hutcherson, Berkeley-born saxophonist Joshua Redman, trumpeter Dave Douglas, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, trombonist André Hayward, pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland.
Here’s the 2007 lineup (with vibraphonist Stefon Harris filling in for Bobby Hutcherson on the tour) performing Thelonious Monk’s “Oska T.”
Monk’s ties to S.F. go way back. In 1959, producer Orrin Keepnews asked Monk to record a live, solo album on his Riverside label, but with a catch: it would be recorded without an audience present.
Monk must’ve dug his stay in S.F., as he penned “San Francisco Holiday” and recorded it live at S.F.'s Blackhawk jazz club in 1960. Here's Miguel Zenón's arrangement from the Collective's 2007 tour.
Since the 1988 Charlie Rouse concert, SFJAZZ has presented many Monk-themed concerts. One that stands out is Jason Moran's “In My Mind" co-commissioned by SFJAZZ in 2007, here documented by NPR Music.
Jason Moran's "In My Mind" used footage documented from W. Eugene Smith's "The Jazz Loft," a dilapidated New York loft building where Monk rehearsed for his famous Town Hall concert.
Another SFJAZZ & Monk moment... Dave Chappelle' performed Monk's signature ballad 'Round Midnight on piano at the 2011 SFJAZZ Gala, with "help" from pianist, Director of Education Rebeca Mauleón.
Monk's Birthday, 10/10, has become a holiday (“San Francisco Holiday”) at the SFJAZZ Center. In recent years, pianists Fred Hersch, Barry Harris and Eric Reed have all played 10/10 at SFJAZZ.
Monk's 100th Birthday
"It’s a cliché of modernism that one generation’s avant-garde assimilates into the next generation’s mainstream. But seven decades after Thelonious Monk helped lay the foundation for modern jazz, he retains the power to rearrange our ears, to recalibrate our notions of what sounds correct and consonant" (Andrew Gilbert, The Mercury News). 100 years after his birth, Monk continues to be discovered and assimilated into mainstream culture. He's the second most-recorded composer in jazz (behind Duke Ellington) and many of his tunes are now popular "standards" in the Great American Songbook. October 10 is Monk's 100th birthday, and SFJAZZ will be celebrating that week with a series of Monk-inspired projects: Danilo Pérez's "PanaMonk," Jason Moran's multi-media "In My Mind," and John Beasley's Monk'estra Big Band. In addition, NEA Jazz Master and Monk disciple Randy Weston will perform and give a talk at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (presented by SFJAZZ) on October 18. The current SFJAZZ Collective also revisits Monk's music in its SFJAZZ residency on October 28 – that day's matinee performance will be live streamed via SFJAZZ's YouTube channel. Whether or not you're able to join in on the festivities at the SFJAZZ Center or beyond, take some quality time on 10/10 to hip yourself to Monk's music and story, one of the all time greats of American music.
Special thanks to the William Gottlieb Photo Archive, SFJAZZ Collective, Masters of American Music series, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Columbia Records, The Wall Street Journal, Orrin Keepnews & the Keenpews family, NPR Music's Jazz Night In America, Jason Moran, YouTube Movies, The Jazz Loft Project, and SFJAZZ Director of Education Rebeca Mauleón.