When John Beasley met Dianne Reeves in 1981-the two were part of Sérgio Mendes’ touring band-he never anticipated that he would one day lead a big band dedicated to the music of Thelonious Monk, or that he would lead a big band at all. But on Aug. 18, Beasley’s MONK’estra celebrated the release of MONK’estra, Volume 1 at Jazz Standard, in New York, where special guest Reeves rendered “Ask Me Now,” with lyrics co-written by Beasley and his wife, Lorna Chiu. For the 56-year-old Los Angeles-based keyboardist, composer, arranger and music director, forming the band was a decision that unfolded organically over a period of decades, and developing the music for Volume 1 took years. (The reaction to Beasley’s project has been much swifter: His label, Mack Avenue, has already signed on for Volume 2, recorded in October and due out in 2017 to mark the centennial of Monk’s birth.)
Beasley’s ninth album as a leader feels like a culmination, utilizing the full range of his multi-hyphenate career. Vibraphonist Gary Burton, saxophonist Bob Sheppard, harmonica player Grégoire Maret and many other past Beasley collaborators appear on the group’s debut album, reinventing well-trodden repertoire (think “‘Round Midnight” as a slow jam) and lesser-known gems from the Monk songbook, like the cascading “Gallop’s Gallop.” Beasley’s arrangement of “Little Rootie Tootie” captures a droll swagger here; having worked in the music department on several James Bond films, he inserts a kitschy reference that imagines the “High Priest of Bop” as another kind of secret agent.
It all started with “Epistrophy.” More than a decade ago, to keep pace with the frenetic shooting schedule of American Idol, where Beasley was the longtime lead arranger, he traded old-fashioned pencil and paper for Sibelius, the music-notation software. For Beasley, the jump from Carrie Underwood to Monk was surprisingly natural. “Epistrophy,” with its intervallic leaps, interlocking rhythms and angular form, was the ideal springboard to experiment with contemporary harmony and orchestration for a large ensemble. “Because it’s written by a pianist, mostly for a pianist, it’s a big challenge to make the melody work for horns,” Beasley says, sitting down recently at the Hotel Beacon on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “And lo and behold, I discovered that I could stretch out the melody, and then the form, and a light bulb went off.”
Beasley’s vision of a freewheeling Monk big band that draws inspiration from hip-hop, Afro-Cuban polyrhythms and the expansiveness of Quincy Jones may have begun as an exercise in software facility, but it coalesced off the screen. In 2010, the Los Angeles-based Luckman Jazz Orchestra commissioned Beasley to arrange “Ask Me Now” for a Monk tribute. The LJO continued hiring Beasley to arrange for a season of tributes-Billie Holiday, Dexter Gordon, Horace Silver-“but Monk’s music stuck with me over all these people,” Beasley says.
The following year, he was asked to arrange a large-scale piece for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz’s 25th anniversary gala, and the choice of repertoire was obvious. Eventually, Beasley had amassed a collection of arrangements from these one-off performances, and rather than letting them collect dust, he called a group of musical colleagues to breathe new life into them. They assembled at a musicians’ union hall in Los Angeles to rehearse, and the MONK’estra was born. He arranged more material from his converted garage studio, and in January 2013 the band debuted at Bluewhale in L.A.’s Little Tokyo.
Beasley conducts like Thad Jones, signaling with his hands and face when to extend a solo section or deviate from the written music, gesticulating rather than sitting at the piano bench, an approach that emerged through performances at SFJAZZ and Juilliard. The music calls for this kind of flexibility on the bandstand: Beasley’s arrangements shift from lush orchestration to taut bass-and-drum ostinatos and rhythmic modulations, and from technically demanding unison passages to open solos performed over improvised instrumental backgrounds. Stark contrasts preserve the layers of complexity embedded in Monk’s deceptively straightforward melodies. Beasley is at his best, however, when he lets it all unravel and embraces Monk’s jagged grain-the unresolved dissonances he calls “ugly beauty,” invoking a Monk standard.
“I’m not a big fan of having piano players play all the way through big-band charts. It’s a little cluttered for my taste, unless it’s Roland Hanna,” Beasley says. “I remember seeing Thad conduct-the way he’d scoot the band along rhythmically, and the way he moved. To me it helped the band swing more.”
Part of this approach evolved to allow for the creative impulse of drummer Terreon Gully’s varied cross-rhythms. “Trying to do those cross-rhythms but keep the groove together with the big band is kind of challenging, which is one of the reasons I really like it,” Gully says. “I think part of the enjoyment is not necessarily about the beat per se; it’s more so that Monk’s compositions are so strong.”
According to MONK’estra bassist Reggie Hamilton, Monk’s compositions are ideally suited to this kind of updated reinterpretation because Monk remains fiercely modern. “His music is timeless and it fits contemporary grooves,” Hamilton says. “I would think, even a hundred years from now, whatever the groove is of the period, Monk’s music will fit it.”
Beasley’s interest in Monk dates back to early childhood, when he wore out the grooves of 1954’s Work!, with Sonny Rollins, and 1968’s Underground, and his explorations of the pianist’s music expanded over time. In 1987 he recorded on bassist Buell Neidlinger’s Thelonious, an album of Monk compositions. As a member of Freddie Hubbard’s band for eight years, Beasley got comfortable on Monk tunes including “We See” and “Off Minor.” In 1994, Beasley and guitarist Steve Cardenas released the duo album 10/10 Tribute to Thelonious Monk, recorded at Capitol Studios on Oct. 10, Monk’s birthday. “I feel like John kept the spirit of the music,” Cardenas says of the MONK’estra. “Sometimes when people play Monk, it ends up sounding cute because they’re trying to be Monkish as opposed to just writing or playing the way you play. Monk wasn’t trying to be cute. He was being himself. He wasn’t being weird, he wasn’t being out [there]-he was being himself.”
There are strong precedents for big-band arrangements of Monk, several of which involved the maestro himself. In 1959, Monk worked with composer Hall Overton on the arrangements that led to The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall; they later collaborated on the 1964 live album Big Band and Quartet in Concert, recorded in 1963 at Lincoln Center. In preparation for MONK’estra, Volume 2, Beasley studied Oliver Nelson’s big-band arrangements for the pianist’s Monk’s Blues, released in 1968.
Taking a cue from Rumba Para Monk, Jerry González & the Fort Apache Band’s Latin-inflected rendering of Monk from 1989, Beasley used Sibelius to map a rhythmic clave onto the score throughout the composition process. “Monk fits perfectly into the clave,” Beasley says. “The clave’s running the whole time I’m writing. Jimmy Heath told me that the swing is totally built into Monk’s tunes, so you don’t have to do much to that part of it.” That same swing led Gang Starr, the Wu-Tang Clan and Amy Winehouse to sample or cover Monk’s music.
Beasley accounted for this generational shift in the orchestration. “That swing beat was the Parliament of its day. Jimmie Lunceford, Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, they were the Parliament-Funkadelic of that era, and Monk was influenced by that,” Beasley says. “The beat changed when I was 3 or 4 years old. This is the beat of my generation, and I’m kind of the sum of all my generation’s parts.”
As the beat was changing, Beasley was getting an education in hard bop at home. Born in Shreveport, La., he grew up in Denton, Texas, where his father, pianist and bassoonist Rule Curtis Beasley, taught at what is now called the University of North Texas College of Music. His mother, Lida Beasley, is a brass instrumentalist. By an early age, Beasley’s talent spanned the brass and woodwind families; he passed up a scholarship to study oboe at Juilliard, and finally settled on keyboards as his primary instrument. Yet his first passion was composing. When Beasley was young, his father taught him jazz theory by osmosis, bringing home records by notable arrangers-Gil Evans, Bob Florence, Michael Abene and Quincy Jones’ Walking in Space.
“I kind of fell in love with Quincy,” Beasley recalls. “Before I wanted to be a piano player, I wanted to be an arranger.” (Perhaps another apropos touchstone is trumpeter Billy May, the wry arranger who got his start with Charlie Barnet and went on to write for Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, and compose music for TV’s Naked City and The Green Hornet.)
The elder Beasley also fielded questions on the fundamentals of composition, arranging and performance, effectively giving his son a UNT education by proxy. When the family moved to Los Angeles after his father took a position at Santa Monica College, Beasley found himself amid a thriving jazz scene. “Freddie [Hubbard] was living there. Joe Henderson, Tony [Williams] and Bobby Hutcherson were just up in San Francisco; Joe Farrell, Hubert Laws, Stanley Clarke, Chick [Corea], Miles [Davis], Wayne [Shorter], all these guys were living there and using L.A. bands to go all over the world,” Beasley recalls. The critical mass provided Beasley the opportunity to perform and tour with Hubbard, John Patitucci, Steely Dan and George Duke.
In 1989, while Beasley was on tour with Hubbard in Florida, he got a call that changed his life. When he wasn’t on the road, Beasley performed with Audio Mind, an L.A.-based electric band that improvised sets, featuring drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, multireedist Steve Taviglione and bassist Gary Willis. Drummer Vince Wilburn Jr. became aware of the band, and asked Beasley to make a tape to submit to Wilburn’s uncle, Miles Davis, who was looking to hire a keyboardist for what would become his last touring band. “I went home and put on my HR-16 [drum machine], put it on a loop and just kind of improvised with my [synth] and my Rhodes. I put it on direct-to-cassette and told myself I’d forget about it,” Beasley says.
Six months later, the phone rang. “He actually called my wife first at the house,” Beasley recalls. “So she called me and said, ‘John, Miles Davis called.’ And I was like, ‘Nah, somebody’s messing with you or me.’ She said, ‘OK, well call this number,'” Beasley says. “And he answered the phone. He said, ‘John, I want you to join the band. You’re a bad motherfucker.’ And I said, ‘Really? Are you sure?’ By May I was here in New York rehearsing with the band.”
Between tours, Beasley applied his background as an arranger to studio work, scoring Star Trek: The Next Generation, Cheers, Family Ties and others. He has maintained a decades-long working relationship with feature film composer Thomas Newman, collaborating on Skyfall, Finding Nemo and the forthcoming Passengers, a sci-fi thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt.
Beasley parlayed his studio experience into music directing while on tour in Japan with “Robby and Negro at the Third World War,” a large ensemble led by percussionists Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez and Robby Ameen. The band was hired to open for Japanese vocalist Chie Ayado, and Beasley was appointed music director on the basis of his ability to reharmonize Ayado’s material. In this capacity, Beasley and the band continued touring and recording with Ayado on and off for the better part of a decade. Members of the band, among them Pedrito Martinez and Yosvany Terry, gave Beasley a crash course in Afro-Cuban rhythm on the tour bus; his job in these impromptu road sessions was to maintain the clave, which he later applied to the MONK’estra.
Composer, arranger and music director Rickey Minor hired Beasley to be the lead arranger for American Idol starting in 2005. (Beasley also did work for Minor on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno, and has arranged for other reality series.) While juggling television work, Beasley took on music-directing duties on tours with Queen Latifah and Bollywood film composer A.R. Rahman.
In 2011, George Duke recommended Beasley as his replacement to direct the Kennedy Center gala commemorating the Monk Institute’s 25th anniversary. For the occasion, Beasley scored an arrangement that would feature all the previous Monk competition winners that could attend-among them Joshua Redman and Jacky Terrasson-which he describes as “an eight-minute Monk medley with 25 artists.”
Based in part on the success of the event, in 2012 the Monk Institute hired Beasley to be a music director for International Jazz Day, the worldwide annual celebration whose home base moves to a new city each year. Beasley has now acted as musical director for five star-filled International Jazz Day concerts, the most recent held on the South Lawn of the White House on April 29; that show, titled Jazz at the White House and broadcast on ABC TV the following evening, earned Beasley an Emmy nomination. Among performances by Aretha Franklin, Sting, Joey Alexander, Jazz Day co-chair Herbie Hancock and others, Beasley arranged a combustible take of “Spanish Key,” including himself alongside fellow Miles alumni Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea and Marcus Miller.
Monk never received that kind of official global recognition in his lifetime. Yet International Jazz Day was produced in part by an important educational foundation that carries his name. “There’s a lot of dark history, but a lot of stuff to be proud of at the same time,” Beasley muses. As he continues contemplating the enormity of Monk’s legacy, Beasley intends to do his part to keep it alive, and live. “Rhythmically, people would dance and party to this music. It was the stuff,” he says. “To me, a groove is a groove is a groove is a groove.”