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On The Centennial Of His Birth, A Look Back At Thelonious Monk's Jazz Legacy

Oct 10, 2017
Originally published on October 11, 2017 8:46 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "ERONEL")

GROSS: The pianist and composer Thelonious Monk was born 100 years ago today. He's been the subject of many tribute albums this year. But Monk's fame is greater now than when he was alive. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has an appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "ERONEL")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Thelonious Monk's music is universally beloved by jazz musicians across the stylistic spectrum who might agree about little else. These days, we may forget his lionization is mostly posthumous. After his death in 1982, everybody started playing his music, and they still do. While he was alive, he had staunch champions who aired out his pretty and thorny compositions. But there were skeptics. All that plinking at the piano - could he really play?

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "HORNIN' IN")

WHITEHEAD: Yeah, he could play. Monk's flat-fingered technique was homemade, and he made a lot of discoveries sitting at the keyboard, ways of attacking the keys to yield unique tampers and tricks of microtiming and precise fingering to fool the ear. Strike and release two adjacent keys just right, you could sound like you're bending notes on piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "MONK'S POINT")

WHITEHEAD: As a stylist, Thelonious Monk learned a lot from old New York stride pianists, from Count Basie's laconic blues playing and Duke Ellington's percussive jabs and from the old blues pianists who'd mashed together two adjacent notes to stand in for the unreachable blue note that lay in between. Monk took that idea and ran with it, made little clusters and narrow intervals a cornerstone of his harmony. His crunched-up chords sound both old-bluesy and ultramodern.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "MONK'S POINT")

WHITEHEAD: As composer, Monk wrote some fetching ballads that singers later set words to and wrote more abstract lines for instrumentalists. Like a conventional songwriter, he'd follow up the main melody with a repeat and then a bridge - a secondary theme in another key.

A conventional bridge has a contrasting melody, but Monk's bridges might repeat or paraphrase part of the main theme to intensify its effect. As Monk put it, the inside of the tune should make the outside sound good. This is "Well, You Needn't."

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "WELL, YOU NEEDN'T")

WHITEHEAD: Monk wrote a few tunes where the inside makes the outside sound good. On "Little Rootie Tootie," the inside almost sounds like the outside turned inside out. It also has one of Monk's densest, crunchiest chords - one to stump piano students.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "LITTLE ROOTIE TOOTIE")

WHITEHEAD: Monk's mirror-image bridges bring a composition's theme into sharper focus to orient an improvising soloist. His contemporaries typically improvised over a tune's chords and ignored the melody, but Monk wanted to hear the tune in there. His own solos often hewed close to the written line. He took greater liberties as an accompanist, where he indulged his love of silences and open space.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "MISTERIOSO")

WHITEHEAD: Vibraphonist Milt Jackson on "Monk's Blues'" "Misterioso," sounding like he took the pianist's advice - don't listen to me. I'm accompanying you. His gonzo ways of backing a solo are more influential than ever, one more way the rest of us are still catching up.

One last thing to know about Monk - the spelling of his first name, which still gets mangled in jazz festival press releases and scholarly works on American culture - T-H-E-L-O-N-I-O-U-S, not I-U-S. It's not Latin. Thelonious - 10 letters with a second O. You want to get that right now that he's a household name.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "TRINKLE, TINKLE")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Noah Baumbach, who wrote and directed the new film "The Meyerowitz "Stories," a very contemporary comedy about three adult siblings who share a father but are from two different marriages. It stars Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller. Baumbach also made "Frances Ha," "Greenberg" and "The Squid And The Whale." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "TRINKLE, TINKLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.