9.41: Thelonious Monk
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Pianist and composer. Monk is one of the most important figures in jazz history, but he is also one of the most controversial and least-understood. Born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Monk’s family moved to New York when he was four, and he remained there the rest of his life. In the early 1940s he became house pianist at Minton’s in Harlem, helping to formulate what would become “bebop”— the style that would define modern jazz — though Monk himself never considered himself a “bebopper” and his music does not fit easily into that category. Monk was a highly accomplished pianist, but his idiosyncratic keyboard technique — full of dry, punchy chords, complex syncopations, intentional “wrong notes,” and long stretches of silence — led many to believe mistakenly that he was simply a poor musician. His erratic personal behavior did little to improve his stature in many peoples’ eyes, though his influence on other musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane remains legendary. Monk’s most important contribution to jazz may be as a composer, for pieces such as “Round Midnight,” “Straight No Chaser,” and “Ruby, My Dear” not only became jazz standards but expanded harmonic, rhythmic, and formal possibilities for those who improvised on them. Recent scholarship — much of it as yet unpublished — will hopefully provide a better understanding of this enigmatic musician.