Lost Classic Found: Thelonious Monk-Monk.

Over the last few years, the fashion has been for a minimalism within the hipper home, and it has been fashionable to declutter and adopt a less is more look. Some people have been so keen to declutter that they don’t seem to care about what they thrown away. However, it’s not just the hipper home where scant regard is paid to what’s being discarded.

The same thing happened twenty years ago when someone was on a decluttering mission at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation in Copenhagen, and threw away a Scotch Broadcast Tape that featured recording of Thelonious Monk from 1963. Fortunately, when the master tape was lying in a skip it was spotted by a producer who realising the importance of the tape, rescued it. Twenty years later, that tape of Thelonious Monk’s classic quartet was reissued as Monk and features the pianist at the peak of his powers.

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 up 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 of 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.

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 released in 1973. Miles and Monk At Newport, Big Band. Quartet In Concert and the critically acclaimed Monk’s Time were all released in 1964. However, another recording from 1963 wasn’t released for fifty-five years.


This is Monk, which features a live recording of Thelonious Monk’s classic quartet that took place in Copenhagen, Denmark,on March the ‘5th  1963 during a European tour. That night in Copenhagen. pianist Thelonious Monk was joined by tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, drummer Frank Dunlop and bassist John Ore as they took the stage.

Opening the set is Thelonious Monk’s composition Bye Ya, where drummer Frank Dunlop plays an energetic solo, before the classic quartet play with enthusiasm as they innovate and unleash a myriad of musical ideas. Nutty is another Monk composition, and at one point the bandleader having built-up the momentum descends the piano keyboard leaving the stage set for Charlie Rouse’s baying tenor saxophone to soar and take centre-stage. Very different is beautiful is the tender reading of I’m Getting Sentimental Over You. It gives way to a heart-achingly beautiful  and moving version of Body and Soul where the loneliness seems very real. Closing the set is the swinging Monk’s Dream which careers along, and closes Monk on a high,

Thelonious Monk recorded the music that features on Monk Danish Broadcasting Corporation in Copenhagen on the ‘5th’ of March 1963 and four days later, the concert was broadcast on the ‘9th’ of March 1963. Fifty-five years later, Monk  was belatedly released. It’s a  hidden gem that features Thelonious Monk’s classic quartet at the peak of their considerable powers.

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 throughout Monk, which is welcome and almost flawless reminder of Thelonious Monk’s classic quartet live in concert.

Lost Classic Found: Thelonious Monk-Monk.

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