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MONK, Thelonious

MONK, Thelonious
Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Sphere Monk was a genius. The jazz pianist rambled, marched and leaped across the keys with uncompromising vision and relentless creativity, stamping his melodic, harmonic and rhythmic signature on every tune he wrote or covered. During his early days as a bandleader, he was ordained the High Priest of Bebop-- a dubious moniker, as Monk's radical playing was more driven by stride, blues and swing influences than by bop. Instead of piquing the curiosity of jazzophiles, the esoteric title actually scared more people away from his admittedly difficult and odd-sounding music. In much the same vein, Monk encountered as many setbacks in his career as he enjoyed successes. While he garnered recognition from his musical peers and eventually the record-buying public, Monk was often misunderstood and unfairly castigated as a neurotic for his idiosyncratic behavior and newfangled tunes.

Born Oct. 11, 1917, Monk moved to New York when he was 5. In his preteen years he took piano lessons and later played house parties and church revivals. He was influenced by Teddy Wilson and stride piano players. In the early '40s he frequently gigged in New York, scoring his most important gig with Coleman Hawkins. He later played with Dizzy Gillespie and formed his own band in 1947, using the talents of such jazzers as Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins and Milt Jackson. Other band members over the years included saxophonists John Coltrane and Charlie Rouse.

While Monk made his recording debut with Blue Note in 1947, it was during his long association with the Riverside label (and co-owner Orrin Keepnews, who served as his producer) that he made his indelible mark on the jazz world. In the '60s he recorded widely with Columbia. Each of Monk's albums proved to be an adventure in listening. Even though the eccentric pianist reinterpreted many of his best known and favorite pieces -- including "'Round Midnight," "Straight, No Chaser," "Ruby, My Dear" and "Epistrophy" -- on his later recordings, each visit was so charged with imaginative impulses that his music teemed with surprises, never sinking to the level of bland predictability.

In his twilight years, Monk was nearly invisible. His last recording was the 1971 Black Lion sessions and one of his last appearances took place at the 1974 Newport Jazz Festival. Even though when he died in 1982 he was almost forgotten, his music in subsequent years became extremely popular as young jazz upstarts began to comprehend the wit, poetry and genius in his compositions.

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