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(Credit: William P. Gottlieb)

Music

The perfect introductory playlist to Thelonious Monk

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“A genius is the one most like himself.” – Thelonious Monk (1917-1982).

Thelonious Monk was not only a genius because of his total expression of individuality, but also because nobody could imitate the self-same thing even if they tried. As the poet and jazz aficionado once affectionately described him, he was an “elephant at the keyboard”, and that thumping style was hard to match.

He was like some musical mutant hybrid between beast, man and genius. It is also in this rarified middle ground that his work now retrospectively resides, he is perhaps the most challenging of all the mainstream jazz artists, but behind Duke Ellington, he is the second most recorded and certainly one of the most loved.

He once said himself that “the piano ain’t got no wrong notes”, and it is this notion that makes him a tricky gateway, but also the reason that he proves so rewarding. Monk goes where his mind takes him and that makes for a wild musical ride. In fact, he even used to rise up from his stool mid-performance and simply dance. His reason for doing so? “I get tired sitting down at the piano! That way I can dig the rhythm better.”

However, behind this profound self-expression was a hefty dose of method and skill. The defining moment in Monk’s musical development came when he was hired by Minton’s Playhouse, a Manhattan Night Club in the early 1940s (with the best guess in the literature being the spring of’ 41). Whilst he was a house pianist at the club, his style was forced to evolve out of necessity as much as anything. The jazz scene was so fervent in Manhattan at the time rival pianists would attend the club and secretively jot down notes on the inside cuff of their shirts. In response to these ‘leeches’, Thelonious invented a style simply too hard to copy. 

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Thanks to his stint at the nightclub, his playing became counterintuitive; he chocked his oeuvre full of dissonance, angular melodic twists, and reharmonised classic structures so that one hand would contrast the melody of the other. It was not only this necessity to adopt singular stylings that shaped his playing during this era. After all, when you’re playing for hours on end at a rowdy nightclub, the improvisational style for which he is now known comes pretty much as a prerequisite requirement. In some mad way, he was almost like a primitive DJ mixing music to match the mood; only he was hunched and sweating over a piano as opposed to the decks.

His brilliance once more, however, is underpinned by a paradox that he helped to explain himself. He wouldn’t just play counterintuitive pieces for the sake of being hard to follow, contrary to how the notion of cramming peculiarities into a piece might sound, every single step he took was with keen musical consideration. This is defined by the fact that he once said: “Don’t play everything (or every time); let some things go by… What you don’t play can be more important than what you do.”

Thus, when you get beyond the odd patch of jarring dissonance, you realise he is extolling pure joy and leaving the piano keys heaving for breath as he does so. It is at this point that his music becomes ultimately rewarding, as the triumphant core melodies come to the fore. Case in point is his number one tip for all musicians to follow: “Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean that you don’t have to keep time.”

In the two-hour playlist below, we’ve compiled the very best of Monk’s less-challenging solo arrangements for your delight, dedication and creative fuel. Spanning the course of his career, you can bask in his unadorned piano wizardry in its purest form from ‘I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)’ to ‘Tea for Two’.

An introductory playlist to Thelonious Monk:

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