(Credit: William P. Gottlieb)

Exploring the life and times of Thelonious Monk

There are artists who are inimitable, and then there are the rarefied few who are unplayable; Thelonious Monk was both. Monk took the term ‘sui generis’ to new levels with his revolutionary playing style. Poet and jazz aficionado Philip Larkin once affectionately described him as “the elephant at the keyboard”, and it’s easy to see why. When he sat down in front of those keys, he played them like no other. He was like some musical mutant hybrid between beast, man and genius. It is also in this rare 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.

As ever with music, this singular approach to playing didn’t just occur out of nowhere, his whole life seemed to be shepherding him along a bizarre and troublesome path to stardom, like some tortuous journey fine-tuned by fate. 

He was born on October 10th, 1917 and, by the age of six, he was already playing hymns that his mother had taught him. At seventeen, he was touring with a group of Evangelists playing the organ. These early formative experiences, however, did little to establish his playing style and love of jazz – but that would come later. His primary days in the gospel scene merely laid out the groundwork and honed his skills so that he could go on and exploit a niche of his own. 

The definitive Promethean moment for Monk 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 that rivals 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. 

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. As these external factors began to take hold over the playing of Monk and many other jazz artists amidst the Manhattan scene, such as; Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie ‘Brid’ Parker and later, Miles Davis; the bebop subgenre was formed. 

The raucous cacophony of bebop stars all huddled in the same Manhattan boroughs led to an underground milieu where networking between the artists was rife. One such encounter in this underworld of jazz was between Monk and Lorraine Gordon. Gordon was the owner of the famed Greenwich Village jazz club, the ‘Village Vanguard’, and she would become Monk’s biggest fan and asset simultaneously. Her instant adulation of the relatively unknown Thelonious led her to fiercely proclaim his genius to the rest of the scene and indeed anyone who would listen. Surprisingly, much of her praise fell on deaf ears initially. As Gordon recalls in her memoir, she would visit Harlem record stores and inquire with the owners whether Monk was on their radars and, on one occasion, she was told: “He can’t play lady, he’s got two left hands.”

His lack of widespread exposure and acceptance was also hindered by his own reticent ways. Far from the outspoken star that his quirky hats and blackout sunglasses might suggest, he simply refused to speak to the press unless Gordon was present. With his tricky style and lack of self-promotion, Thelonious was a million miles away from an instant favourite in the jazz world; his first shows at Gordon’s Village Vanguard Club were attended by a grand total of zero. 

With his career waning and his genius docked in the tempestuous waters of obscurity, it seemed fate had struck a fatal blow to his life as a musician in the August of 1951. On a hot summers evening, Thelonious was relaxing in a car with his friend Bud Powell when police happened upon them and decided to search the vehicle. Narcotics were found belonging to Powell, but Thelonious refused to testify against his friend and, as a result, had his cabaret card revoked. This meant that he could no longer perform anywhere that had a liquor license, which meant basically every jazz club in the country was off-limits. 

Monk at Minton’s Playhouse, New York, 1947(Credit: William P. Gottlieb)

For many, this would have represented the final straw, but in a quirk of fate, it turned out to be somewhat of a godsend for Thelonious. Thankfully there were seedier jazz joints all over New York that were willing to flout the rules, and it was in these rather more raucous arenas that Thelonious found an audience. The downside, of course, was that the added risk of the shows meant he couldn’t perform as often as he had been, but once again, this seeming negative was eventually anything but. Freed up from constantly performing, Thelonious had time to impart his style on the studio, filtering his work into the public consciousness and forming the start of a fanbase. Whilst these early records may still have been widely unrecognised at the time – considering the tragedies that had begot them – the forming of a small following represented as close to a foothold as Thelonious had ever had, and from there, he could stand tall. 

Once again, Thelonious’s fate would become entwined with a woman of influence. While playing in Paris, France, he was introduced to Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a member of the Rothschild family and patroness of several New York City jazz musicians. From this humble backstage beginning, a remarkable relationship was spawned, as the New York Times reported: “[the Baroness] served as a surrogate wife right alongside Monk’s equally devoted actual wife, Nellie.” The relationship between the two was so formidable that she even “paid Monk’s bills, dragged him to an endless array of doctors, put him and his family up in her own home and, when necessary, helped Nellie institutionalise him,” when Monk’s mental health would worsen in later years. “In 1958,” Barry Singer reports, “Monk and the baroness were stopped by the police in Delaware. When a small amount of marijuana was discovered, she took the rap for her friend and even served a few nights in jail.”

Two years after meeting Koenigswarter, with his name being to echo in the underground circles, that Monk released Brilliant Corners. In trademark Thelonious style, the album went on to be his first commercial success, and yet the iconic titular track happened to be so hard to play that it couldn’t be achieved in one take. The fact that this went on to be his first hit represented a changing tide for Monk as finally, the public were willing to stomach his highly challenging style. 

With his reputation strengthening, Monk slowly but surely amassed more and more fans with each release until he was eventually signed with Columbia Records in 1962 in what was undoubtedly the pivotal moment of his entire career. Columbia had the might behind them to promote the nettlesome star and catapult the elephant of jazz to new heights. His 1963 release Monks Dream was the zenith of his musical life, finally coupling commercial success with critical adulation.  

Monk sustained this success with Columbia up until the mid-’70s when he suddenly disappeared from the scene, only making a small number of appearances before his death on February 17th, 1982. Whilst the details behind his final decade are not necessarily clear, it would seem that the jazz legend suffered a breakdown in mental health. 

In the 1988 documentary Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser, his son recalls times when tragically his own father wouldn’t recognise him, saying that he was prone to episodes of inexplicable jubilant excitement followed by days in an almost catatonic state. After years battling with several health issues, he was homed as a guest at the residence of long-standing patron and friend Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who nursed Monk along with his wife Nellie during his final illness. 

His legacy is one that situates him as not only one of the most singular musicians to ever be placed on a piano stool but one also a man full of unrivalled exuberant joy. He was no stranger to rising up mid-performance, abandoning his instrument entirely and taking a few minutes to have a boogie. Despite his tragic end, it is this zeal and passion for performance that resides on record to this day and perhaps from this playing, we capture the clearest picture of the man behind it, as he once said, “A genius is the one most like himself.”

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