It is surreal for Jazz lovers not to have heard of the famous Thelonious Sphere Monk, a creative Jazz musician and composer who was active throughout the interim period of 1940s to the early 1970s. Monk’s ingenuity arouse from his mastery of the piano and the unconventional, musically awkward techniques he embellished his songs with. His love for Jazz music and a generally original and principled approach to playing the piano often made him unpopular amongst the conservative, one-sided critics of Jazz in the beginning of his career. This was, however, to change later on when personal and professional circumstances would shift dynamics for this renowned composer. That notwithstanding, Monk’s facile inclusion of heavy, rhythmic sounds, catchy melodies and unexpected intervals of silence in his compositions made him one of the founding figures of modern Jazz.
Having learned the piano at a very early age, Monk began his musical journey playing soothing Jazz tunes in local clubs like Minton’s Playhouse, where he would improvise and experiment for long hours just to develop some sense of direction. It was here that he came in to close contact with renowned musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Christian, and really got a grip of how he wanted to progress through his career. However, it was only when he signed contracts with Blue Note Records that his first recording, Genius of Modern Music: Volume 1entered the early Bebop Jazz scene. Although his incredible sense of composition was noticed by a few fellow musicians, other unfortunate events such as the suspension of his New York Cabaret Card, resulted in his expulsion from performing in most New York clubs and bars. In the early 1950s, Monk contributed to a self-titled album, together with another piece, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins. However, due to Monk’s limited exposure to playing arenas, unpopular playing style and techniques, his music failed to be noticed by a wider audience in this period and sold poorly in the market.
Fortunes took a swift turn for Monk when he began working for Riverside Records after 1955. For the next three years, Monk would have on and off residencies at the Five Spot café, and worked there on spectacular albums with an orchestra. Some of the most respected works that brought him international fame were Thelonious in Action and Misterioso (1958) and The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall (1959). After his miraculous comeback to the Jazz stage, he travelled to different parts of the world, focusing more on performing in Europe. In 1963, he performed with another orchestra, resulting in compositions such as Big Band and Quartet in Concert, taking Monk’s reputation another level higher. He would continue working on a number of similar albums throughout the 1960s, aided by bassists John Ore and Larry Gales, while also shifting drummers between Frankie Dunlop and Ben Riley. Monk’s Dream was another album released in 1963, with tracks such as ‘Bye-Ya’ and ‘Bright Mississippi’ amongst the most popular. Some of his other productions during this time included studio albums such as Criss Cross (1963), whereas some of the live collections included Miles and Monk at Newport (1963) and Live at the It Club(1964). The only other album having any significance before Monk retired was Underground, released in 1968.
Thelonious Monk’s career resulted in some of the most thought-of tracks in modern Jazz music, such as ‘Round Midnight’, ‘Straight, No Chaser’ and ‘Blue Monk’. These tracks, amongst a large number of others, are said to have redefined Jazz trajectories not just in Monk’s time, but also today to a noticeable extent.