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Monk’s Music

Monk’s Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making

Gabriel Solis
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Pages: 252
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  • Book Info
    Monk’s Music
    Book Description:

    Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) was one of jazz's greatest and most enigmatic figures. As a composer, pianist, and bandleader, Monk both extended the piano tradition known as Harlem stride and was at the center of modern jazz's creation during the 1940s, setting the stage for the experimentalism of the 1960s and '70s. This pathbreaking study combines cultural theory, biography, and musical analysis to shed new light on Monk's music and on the jazz canon itself. Gabriel Solis shows how the work of this stubbornly nonconformist composer emerged from the jazz world's fringes to find a central place in its canon. Solis reaches well beyond the usual life-and-times biography to address larger issues in jazz scholarship—ethnography and the role of memory in history's construction. He considers how Monk's stature has grown, from the narrowly focused wing of the avant-garde in the 1960s and '70s to the present, where he is claimed as an influence by musicians of all kinds. He looks at the ways musical lineages are created in the jazz world and, in the process, addresses the question of how musicians use performance itself to maintain, interpret, and debate the history of the musical tradition we call jazz.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94096-3
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    WHEN THELONIOUS MONK BEGAN RECORDING with Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff for the Blue Note record label in 1947, he had already made a permanent impression on the sound of jazz and the course it had taken to that point. As house pianist for jam sessions at the Harlem nightspot Minton’s Playhouse, he had shared with other musicians a very personal sense of time, approach to harmony, and understanding of what the music could be. Though his own style was never like that of the bop pioneers, his ideas permeated their playing, and on that basis he can reasonably be...


    • ONE A Biographical Sketch
      (pp. 19-27)

      THELONIOUS SPHERE MONK. It is a name like no other, ripe with allusions, as if ready-made for a man who would be mythologized in his lifetime and beatified after his death.

      Much is known of Monk’s life. His comings and goings, his business dealings and friendships, and his work and to some extent his play were chronicled in the pages of trade journals, in film, and in biographical writings, like those of any public figure of the twentieth century. Still, there is something about Monk’s life and art that resists complete knowledge. As much as we know about the events...

    • TWO Hearing Monk: History, Memory, and the Making of a Jazz Giant
      (pp. 28-60)

      PUT A MONK RECORDING ON YOUR STEREO. Any recording will do for the moment, whether it’s one of the slightly dodgy, loose-limbed, rough and perhaps not-quite-ready Blue Note recordings from the late 1940s; one of the tough, searing Riverside recordings from the 1950s, when it seemed like every month produced new musical insights of stunning originality; or even one of the polished but arguably less powerful Columbia recordings from the 1960s, when Monk was consolidating his style. Listen to Monk’s performance of “Little Rootie Tootie” from a live concert at New York’s Town Hall in 1959, for instance (Monk 1959)....


    • THREE The Question of Voice
      (pp. 63-80)

      IN 1981 VERNA GILLIS, head of Soundscape music, produced one of the first tributes to Thelonious Monk, a concert series titled “Interpretations of Monk.” The series consisted of two performances, an afternoon and an evening concert, on November 1, 1981. Each concert featured two pianists, one per set, playing solo and with an ensemble. The pianists, Barry Harris, Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Davis, and Mal Waldron, were stylistically distinct, but each had some connection with Monk or his music. The ensemble was largely the same for each of the four sets, including Steve Lacy on soprano saxophone, Don Cherry on...

    • FOUR Three Pianists and the Monk Legacy: Fred Hersch, Danilo Perez, and Jessica Williams
      (pp. 81-108)

      AS THE PRECEDING CHAPTER SHOWED, jazz musicians often speak eloquently about the demands of Monk’s legacy and about the pitfalls they face on the way to developing their own voices when playing Monk’s music. In my interviews, however, they spoke less explicitly about the ways they solved those challenges in particular instances. Nonetheless, particular performances and the degree to which they represent good solutions to those challenges are worth considering for their own sake and for the light they may shed on more general questions about the nature of borrowing and revision in jazz. The overriding question for such an...


    • FIVE Defining a Genre: Monk and the Struggle to Authenticate Jazz at the End of the Twentieth Century
      (pp. 111-133)

      THE 1981 “INTERPRETATIONS OF MONK” CONCERT, produced by Verna Gillis, was by no means the last monumental tribute to Monk. In 1985 drummer and bandleader T.S. Monk and arranger Doug Richards, at the behest of critic Martin Williams, undertook the creation of a collection of authoritative scores for Monk’s music. In a letter to T.S. Monk, Williams wrote, “Your father’s best pieces are not ‘lines’ or ‘heads’ with chord changes attached, but they arecompositionsin the strictest sense—the way Ellington’s were, or for that matter, the way Beethoven’s were. So they should be preserved as close to his...

    • SIX “Classicism” and Performance
      (pp. 134-157)

      IF THE STRATEGIES OF CANONIZATION discussed in chapter 5 were the provenance of critics and historians alone, they would be relatively circumscribed in their importance. Similar ideas, however, run through the intellectual community of jazz musicians (to some extent through dialogue with other commentators), impacting musicians’ discursive stances and performance practices with regard to Monk’s music. Through an analysis of musical performances, official public discourse (such as published interviews), and other, less official public and private speech (including stage talk, private interviews, and conversations), it is possible to find out to what extent jazz musicians have accepted or rejected a...

    • SEVEN Monk and Avant-Garde Positions
      (pp. 158-184)

      ALTHOUGH “MAINSTREAMING” OR “CLASSICIZING” TENDENCIES in jazz culture and the conservative memories embedded in them have been most visible in the recent past, even a cursory survey of the jazz world since the 1980s demonstrates the abundance and richness of other approaches to playing the music and playing with its past. It is clear—explicitly so, in fact—that the musicians and intellectuals associated with preservationist and revivalist paradigms of contemporary jazz neoclassicism considered in the previous chapter make recourse to the past as a key marker of musical identity. This chapter and the following one grow out of a...

    • EIGHT Loving Care: Steve Lacy, Roswell Rudd, and Randy Weston
      (pp. 185-204)

      WHILE THE SO-CALLED “MAINSTREAM” has marked itself off as the jazz style associated with tradition and as the bearers of Monk’s legacy into the present, any number of musicians who do not fit into the mainstream mold have found Monk’s musical legacy an important point of reference and source of creativity. Chapter 7 looked at one such countermainstream claim on Monk’s legacy, that of the contemporary avant-garde. This chapter looks at a number of others. Whereas the previous chapter considered something like a subgenre, this chapter looks at a diverse body of music from players who are not part of...

  8. Afterword
    (pp. 205-206)

    AN INTERVIEWER ONCE ASKED MONK where jazz was going. Monk replied, somewhat testily, “Where’s jazz going? I don’t know. Maybe it’s going to hell. You can’t make anything go anywhere. It just happens.” In the recent past jazz has been looking carefully at its past and putting that past to use in many different ways. People who worry about “where jazz is going” often complain that, considering that jazz is a music that has been progressive in outlook throughout most of its history, this focus on the past is a sign of a moribund art. This book has been an...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 207-218)
    (pp. 219-232)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 233-239)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 240-240)