Thelonious Monk-Monk.

Label: Music On Vinyl.

By the time Thelonious Monk began recording Monk, which was his seventh album for Columbia Records, the forty-seven year old pianist was a vastly experienced musician who had already released over twenty albums on Blue Note, Prestige and Riverside Records. However, since Thelonious Monk signed to Columbia, he had recorded and released some of the finest music of his career, including Monk’s Dream and Criss-Cross in 1963, and It’s Monks Time earlier in 1964. Thelonious Monk was keen to continue this hot streak when he entered the studio with his quartet and producer Teo Macero and began recording Monk which was released by Music On Vinyl for Record Store Day 2018. Monk is a welcome reminder of one of the greats of jazz.

Although Thelonious Monk is now regarded as one of the great jazz pianists, he wasn’t without his critics with poet and jazz critic Phillip Larkin dismissing him as: “the elephant on the keyboard.” Sadly, it seemed not everyone appreciated Thelonious Monk’s innovative approach to jazz music.

That is despite Thelonious Monk as now being the second-most covered jazz composer of all time. That is pretty good going as Thelonious Monk composed only seventy pieces. These compositions and improvisations featured dissonances and what are best described as angular melodic twists, which are an accurate representation of his unique approach to the piano. Initially, it was described as hard swinging, but evolved over the next twenty years.

Those that had followed Thelonious Monk career watched his style evolve, and his extremely percussive attack which featured abrupt and dramatic use of switched key releases, silences, pauses and hesitations, which divided the opinion of jazz critics and fans. What they forgot, was that Thelonious Monk was a relative latecomer to jazz, and had started his career accompanying a touring evangelist on an old church organ. In some ways, Thelonious Monk was making up for lost time, as he was already twenty-four before he first started playing jazz.

Despite arriving to the party late, Thelonious Monk was soon making up for lost time, and from the early fifties, was working as bandleader, sideman and collaborating with other future giants of jazz. He had started off at Blue Note Records between 1948 and 1952, before moving to Prestige Records where he spent two years between 1952 and 1954. After that, Thelonious Monk moved to Riverside Records which was his home between 1955 and 1961, and by then, his star was in the ascendancy.

This was quite remarkable given everything that Thelonious Monk had been through since the early fifties. He had his New York cabaret card revoked in 1951, when he became the latest victim of a trumped narcotics charge. This meant that Thelonious Monk was unable to play in New York’s club’s for six long years. During that time, Thelonious Monk signed to Riverside Records in 1955, which was his home until 1961.

Although  Thelonious Monk was held in high regard by critics and commentators, sadly, for someone so talented, his records weren’t selling well. In 1955,  he agreed to release an albums of jazz standards, Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington in the hope that this would increase his profile and record sales. However, later in 1955 tragedy struck for Thelonious Monk.

Towards the end of 1955, Thelonious Monk’s mother passed away, and the following year, 1956, a fire destroyed the pianist’s apartment in West ‘63rd’ Street, New York. Thelonious Monk and family were left destitute, and his family of five had no option but to stay with friends for several months, with fifteen people shoehorned into a three room apartment. Meanwhile, Thelonious Monk continued to live with an undiagnosed bipolar disorder, which nobody was aware at the time. Despite this, he released Brilliant Corners an album of hard bop in late 1956, which was one of the finest albums he released for Riverside Records.

In 1957, Thelonious Monk’s run of bad luck continued when he was involved in a car accident, and when the police discovered him unresponsive, took him to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, where he spent three weeks. By then, Thelonious Monk was unaware that his father had been living in a psychiatric hospital for the past fifteen years. 

Things got worse for Thelonious Monk in May 1957, when his wife Nellie became ill, and required a thyroidectomy. After the operation, she became frail and depressed, which affected Thelonious Monk’s  wellbeing.  The last two years had been hard on the couple, but at least Thelonious Monk was about to get his New York cabaret card back, and could start playing live in the Big Apple.

By then, Thelonious Monk had a manager, and started a six-month residency at the Five Spot Café, and had formed a friendship with John Coltrane. This was a coincidence as many of John Coltrane’s band had served their music apprenticeship Five Spot Café. 

During Thelonious Monk’s residency at the Five Spot Café during 1957 and 1958, the sharp dressed and sartorially elegant pianist took to the stage with his carefully cultivated look. Thelonious Monk wore suits, hats and had taken to wearing sunglasses which hid the window to his troubled and weary soul. Still, he dazzled patrons with his unique playing style as he switched between standards and his own compositions. Thelonious Monk was back in the Big Apple, after a six-year absence.

With Thelonious Monk’s albums still not selling well by 1958, he was asked to release a second album of jazz standards. It was hoped that The Unique Thelonious Monk would increase his profile and record sales. Ironically, later, in 1958, Thelonious Monk’s face was all over American newspapers, after his latest brush with the law.

Thelonious Monk had been hired to play for a week at the Comedy Club, in Maryland, and on his way to the gig, he and Nica De Koenigswarter were stopped by the police in Wilmington, Delaware. When Thelonious Monk refused to answer or cooperate with the police officer, who beat him with a blackjack. During an authorised search the car drugs were found, and suddenly Thelonious Monk was looking at some serious jail time. Fortunately, Judge Christie of the Delaware Superior Court ruled that the pair had been unlawfully detained, and that the beating of Thelonious Monk meant that the consent to the search void as given under duress. Forty-one year old Thelonious Monk survived to fight another day.

As the fifties gave way to the sixties, Thelonious Monk’s relationship with Riverside Records had gone south, after a disagreement over royalty payments. While Riverside Records released two live albums recorded in Europe, Thelonious Monk hadn’t recorded a studio album since 5 By Monk By 5 in June 1959. Fortunately, Columbia Records one of the four major labels were keen to sign Thelonious Monk.

The negations between Thelonious Monk and Columbia Records, were protracted, and it wasn’t until 1962 that a contract was signed. At last, Thelonious Monk could get back into the studio and do what he did best…make music.

In 1963, Thelonious Monk released Monk’s Dream, which was his Columbia Records debut. Critical acclaim greeted the release of Monk’s Dream, and it was a similar case with the classic Criss-Cross. By then, Thelonious Monk was on a roll, and recorded Monk In Tokyo which was relaxed in 1973. Miles and Monk At Newport and Big Band and Quartet In Concert were both released during 1963 and released in 1964. So was one the finest albums Thelonious Monk recorded for Columbia Records, It’s Monk’s Time which was released to widespread critical acclaim in 1964. It wasn’t going to be easy to surpass It’s Monk’s Time, but Thelonious Monk was determined to do so when he began work on Monk later in 1964.


For Thelonious Monk’s seventh recording for Columbia Records, he wrote two new compositions, Pannonica and Teo which was a tribute to producer Teo Macero. They were joined by the traditional song Children’s Song (That Old Man), and four standards. This included Irving Berlin’s Just One Way To Say) I Love You, Vernon Duke and Yip Harburg’s April In Paris and Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away) which George and Ira Gershwin wrote with lyricist Gus Kahn. These tracks were recorded by Thelonious Monk with what’s regarded as a classic quartet.

The quartet featured a rhythm section of drummer Ben Riley, bassist Larry Gales and pianist Thelonious Monk. Tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse was the final piece of the jigsaw, and he would be part of Thelonious Monk’s band for over ten years. Producing this classic quartet which stayed together for the remainder of Thelonious Monk’s time at Columbia Records was Teo Macero.

Side A.

He watched on as Thelonious Monk opened Monk with a brisk version of Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away) during what was a future classic album of hard bop.  A walking bass and hissing hi-hats accompanied Thelonious Monk’s fleet fingered and almost flawless piano solo as he reinvents this familiar standard. Latterly, though, the tempo drops and the music becomes wistful and briefly dramatic, before Thelonious Monk ends with a flamboyant flourish. Thelonious Monk and saxophonist Charlie Rouse’s had already formed a formidable partnership and play leading role in the sound and success of April In Paris which is one of the highlights of Monk. Children’s Song (That Old Man) was an obscure traditional song that benefited from a reworking by this talented quartet who breath new life and meaning into it. Closing the first side was a Just One Way To Say) I Love You, which features a piano solo that could only have been played by the inimitable Thelonious Monk. Initially, his playing isn’t fluid, and sometimes, he seems to hesitate as he picks out notes. This is deliberate and calculated, and gradually, his playing is confident and assured as he delivers a breathtaking performance.

Side B.

There’s no stopping Thelonious Monk as he leads his quartet during  Just You, Just Me, and soon, they’re moving through the gears. Saxophonist Charlie Rouse’s saxophonist soars above Thelonious Monk’s piano while the rhythm section, complete with walking bass, provide the heartbeat during this joyous and swinging standard. This leaves just the two Thelonious Monk compositions, including the beautiful  mid-tempo Pannonica, where the piano and saxophone play leading roles. Teo which closes Monk, was Thelonious Monk’s tribute to Teo Macero, and offers further opportunities for invention and innovation from this classic quartet. They close Monk on a resounding high, and Thelonious Monk’s career at Columbia Records continued to go from strength to strength.

After signing to Columbia Records, Thelonious Monk embarked upon what was one of the most productive and fruitful periods of his career, where everything he recorded was released to critical acclaim.  What made all this all the more remarkable was that very few people, even within the jazz community were aware that tragedy had touched Thelonious Monk’s life and he was constantly battling his own personal demons. 

Somehow, Thelonious Monk was able to dig deep, and in 1964, continued to write and record several albums a year. This included Monk, which would later be considered a classic album, and one of the finest albums Thelonious Monk recorded for Columbia Records. Monk features Thelonious Monk at the peak of his powers as he leads his classic quartet, which stayed together throughout the rest of his time at Columbia Records. 

Sadly, after leaving Columbia Records in 1968, Thelonious Monk’s recording career was almost over. He had brief stays at Far East Records and Black Lion Records, releasing an album on each label. After that,Thelonious Monk never recorded another solo album, and by the mid-seventies he had turned his back on jazz and living in obscurity.

During what was the final decade of his life, Thelonious Monk remainder a private man, and sadly, the mental health problems that had suffered throughout his life resulted in him being hospitalised on several occasions and belatedly, he received the medication he required.  Latterly, his health declined and he spent the last six years of his life in Weehawken, New Jersey, where he was cared for by his long-standing patron and friend, Pannonica de Koenigswarter, right up until his death on February the ‘17th’ 1982, aged just sixty-four. That day, jazz lost one of its greats, who let behind a rich musical legacy.

This includes the albums Thelonious Monk and classic quartet released on Columbia Records between 1964 and 1968. Thelonious Monk’s classic quartet wrote their way into jazz history after releasing a series of outstanding albums. Crucial to the success of the classic quartet was the interaction between Thelonious Monk and Charlie Rouse, with the two men constantly on the same wavelength, and anticipating their every move. That was the case on parts of Monk, which along with Monk’s Dream, Criss-Cross and It’s Monks Time  are the perfect introduction to the early years of Thelonious Monk’s time at Columbia Records, where this unique and inimitable jazz stylist showcases his considerable talents as the man once dismissed as: “the elephant on the keyboard” matures and becomes one the top jazz pianists of the sixties.

Thelonious Monk-Monk.

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