Monk’s Music Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making

By Gabriel Solis
University of California Press

Originally scorned, then patronized, yet eventually lionized, the career and compositions of Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) offer a lesson in the evolution of musical reputations. Today, both jazz’s neo-conservatives and its avant gardists claim the pianist’s as one of their own. Each makes its claim based on interpretation: fidelity to Monk’s scores or his ideas.

This volume synthesizes the situation, but except obliquely, comes down on neither side. Gabriel Solis, a professor at the University of Illinois, analyzes Monk in terms of sometimes bewildering academic theory, provides notated transcriptions of Monk’s records and compiles opinions of more than a dozen musicians. What emerges confirms his statement that “looking backwards and forward are not necessarily mutually contradictory.”

First active in the mid-1940s, Monk was a bop fellow traveler, but never a bopper with his anti-virtuosic approach to rhythm and harmony. Famous by the 1960s, he maintained his idiosyncratic style. Monk’s compositions’ playful mix of linear and cyclical motifs is defiantly post-modern. In his self-contained world, he re-recorded the same tunes and often refers to others he had written during improvisations. Cast in standard head-solo-solo-head formation, the compositions are inimitable. As pianist Jessica Williams says: “A musician playing a Monk tune sounds like Monk because Monk tunes sound like Monk tunes.”

Following Monk’s death however, the burgeoning jazz repertory movement turned from the ideas of older musicians who interpreted Monk’s challenging music their own way. As Solis writes: “All jazz performances involve …the act of molding something new out of something old [from which] … musicians develop the sense of their own place in music”.

Instead Monk’s son, drummer T.S. Monk, under the auspices of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, created authorized scores, “classicizing” the music as a link to the mainstream that went back to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and forward to the neo-boppers, including trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and pianist Marcus Roberts. These classicists “advocate a right way to play Monk’s music along similar lines and each have borrowed extensively from the cultural legitimacy of the Western classical tradition,” writes Solis. He asks: “Why would a canon developing in the final years of the 20th century, for an African American music … itself primarily a product of that century, follow a number of modernist aesthetic ideologies more reflective of 19th century European music?”

Although Monk sidemen such as saxophonist Steve Lacy relate that once Monk decided on a method of playing his tunes he stuck to it, they also mention his humor. This quality is missing from bland Monk tribute CDs analyzed by Solis. Marsalis plays Monk in “a mannered fashion” and Roberts presents “perhaps the purest canonical approach to constructing Monk’s legacy” on a recording permeated with “the portentous air of seriousness”.

When “outside” musicians interpret Monk, however, as the Art Ensemble of Chicago did with pianist Cecil Taylor, they re-contextualize the melodies with additional rhythmic inflections as well as quotes from other versions of the piece. “The avant garde sees Monk’s music as a set of vehicles for improvisation that extends the expressive registers available to performers,” Solis writes, concluding that “they rather than the institutional mainstream can be seen as the real keepers of jazz’s core tradition.”

As he writes: “Conflict between mainstream and alternative orientations in jazz and Monk’s place in the conflict can shed light on … the uses of music in the making of socio-cultural positions … and … allows for a consideration of alternatives to the classicizing model of historical jazz repertoire”.

For someone as idiosyncratic as Monk, that judgment appears just about perfect.

— Ken Waxman

In MusicWorks Issue #101