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There is Only One Thelonious Monk

New York has a lot of great music radio stations. Three of the finest are WBGO (a jazz station that actually is in Newark), WKCR and WFUV (the radio stations of Columbia University and Fordham University, respectively).

Monk and Rouse
Thelonious Monk and Charlie Rouse (Photo: Pannonica de Koenigswarter)

One of the nice traditions at WKCR is to run birthday broadcasts for great jazz musicians. Louis Armstrong gets two because, well, he’s Louis Armstrong. Here is a list.

Everything about Thelonious Monk was unique. His playing is instantly recognizable and he was famously eccentric. From his February, 1982 New York Times obit: “Mr. Monk once explained the difference between himself and the bop musicians with whom he was often associated in the 1940’s: ‘They think differently, harmonically. They play mostly stuff that’s based on the chords of other things, like the blues and ‘I Got Rhythm.’ I like the whole song, melody and chord structure to be different. I make up my own chords and melodies.” The first line of the obit, which was written by John S. Wilson, described Monk in this as playing “…wry, angular melodies and unusual harmonic progressions [that] are among the most striking contributions to the jazz repertory…” Click here or on the image for “The Essential Monk” at Amazon or here for the album at iTunes. The record seems to have all the key songs.
The Thelonious Monk Birthday Broadcast was October 10. I don’t know of any musician or group whose sound is as distinctive as Monk’s. Of course, it is possible to distinguish a particular voice immediately. Turn on the radio, and you immediately know if Armstrong is singing. Steely Dan is Steely Dan.

Monk, however, doesn’t sing. I’m a non-musician — to put it mildy — but after ten seconds of the birthday broadcast I said to myself that the piano player either is Monk or somebody who wants to sound like him. The only piano players I could possibly make such a guess about are Keith Jarrett and Oscar Peterson.

It is highly likely – probable – that I will get this wrong. If there are jazz experts reading this, please be kind. But it seems to me that what distinguishes Monk’s style is very complex rhythms and his playing of “wrong” notes. Of course, they are not wrong. But he it seems that there often is a discordant note played alongside notes that more smoothly fit the harmonic structure of the passage. And he tends to bang the piano a bit when he really gets into it.

The tenor player who was featured during the bit of the birthday broadcast I heard was Charlie Rouse, so I’ve chosen two videos in which he is featured. Above is “Evidence” and below is “Rhythm-a-Ning.”

Rouse was born in Washington, DC, on April 6, 1924 and died on November 30, 1988. He was a “hard bop” tenor saxophone player who teamed with Monk from 1959 to 1970, according to Wikipedia. He also played with Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and others.

The New York Times’ obituary of Thelonious Monk was quoted in the blue box.