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Thelonious Monk’s First Sessions

75 years ago, the pianist/composer’s debut dates for Blue Note Records bifurcated American musical history

Thelonious Monk 1947
Thelonious Monk at Minton’s, New York, in 1947 (photo: William P. Gottlieb Collection/Library of Congress)

Put a “the” in front of a name and it acquires historical heft. The Thelonious Monk who entered New York City’s WOR Studios as Halloween approached in 1947 was both man and figure. The man had lived—as he seemingly always would—several lifetimes in his recent years. The figure was an oracle of a new shift in the American musical idiom of jazz. It was about to be taken out of its orbit, regrooved for a postbop solar system. Bop, mercurial as it was, and having carronaded out of the war years, now would become something else—if not strictly replaced, then made over as only this man and figure could.

Monk was heavy in the sense that he came on strong, whether he was holding forth in one of his unofficial series of lectures on what was a minor musical point to others but became an aperture to a world for him, or when he brooded in silence for days, scarcely uttering two words to anyone, and words which practically no one could see coming. He was poised to become a transformative and transforming force—for these may be separate going concerns—but had not yet done so, with what would be the least lineal music in jazz’s history, an array of blues-based arcs and dissonances that struck a human chord, in songs that kicked hard at the emotional gut, and yet were lighter than moonbeams.

Born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, on October 10, 1917, Thelonious Sphere Monk was gifted his father’s Christian name, which just so happened to sound like a stray flurry of notes from the date he’d be making on that NYC autumn day 30 years hence. Monk’s middle name—itself a fortuitous and apt sonic label—came from his maternal grandfather, Sphere Batts. The family moved to the San Juan Hill neighborhood of Manhattan in 1922. A year or so after, Monk began to play the piano, aided by a neighbor who was a fan of stride pianists like Fats Waller—who had a touch of the Monkian gift about him—and James P. Johnson.

It’s quaint now to think of Monk as anything but Monk. Some people in this life, be it in music, film, literature, or simply your wondrous neighbor across the street, are such that they can only be themselves. What we might fail to consider, though, is that becoming that self can be a process of amalgamation, with a final version accomplished seamlessly enough that earlier bits and bobs don’t remain in easy view. They’ve been absorbed. The stitches become patches of fresh, smooth skin.

Monk was a master absorber from his start in music. The stride pianists went into his warlock’s kettle, as did pieces by Frederic Chopin and Sergei Rachmaninoff. For all his ample Romantic beauty and ethereality as a composer, we can also deduce that no one in the classical music realm hit a piano quite like Chopin. The same may be said of Monk in jazz, with his flat fingers being brought to bear on the board, often with two of them coming down on the same spot, for additional drive and the further fracturing of a melody into offshoots that resound as more beautiful yet. That’s when you know a big-timer: In what they break, they make so much more.

Starting at age 10, Monk took lessons with the Austrian-born Simon Wolf, a pianist and violinist who himself had studied with Alfred Megerlin, no less than first violinist and concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. That’s a nice pedagogical opportunity for a young man, just as it makes a pleasing amount of sense that come the age of 12, Wolf pushed back on the lessons with his young charge, because this boy had fallen, and fallen hard, for jazz.

Strange as it is to think of Monk before he was what we still grapple with and delight in, it’s likewise a challenge to envision him as a church organist who toured at 17 with an evangelist. There’s a historical novel to be written in there somewhere. Come the 1940s, Monk is in what are starting to become recognizable digs, the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse, cauldron of bebop, where the modernistic cool cats of the night will invent a style of playing, composing, and improvisation that was ironically linked to the earth by Monk’s bedrock stride style, if little else. He played hard in these years, attacking the keyboard, a driver of beat and pulse, a rhythm & blues man before there was rhythm & blues, another key ingredient (like the absorbed Chopin-isms) of the eventual and apparent sui generis style—the stitches having been absorbed.

There’s something workmanlike about Monk at Minton’s, a further irony, because no jazz musician gave off less of a workmanlike vibe than the Monk we will come to know. John Coltrane—a Monk acolyte in between stops with Miles Davis’ band—could be the definition of workmanlike, putting himself through his musical paces on Giant Steps and his spiritual ones on A Love Supreme. Duke Ellington approached composing with a vision rare in the history of this Republic—the vision of a Henry David Thoreau, if Thoreau could craft tunes for the ages—but one had the sense that writing for Ellington was also a matter of chopping wood. A lot of time, and daily efforting.

Strains of the workmanlike tend to pass with the arrival of an opportunity, which is conceivably all it took—now that the gestation period was complete—for Monk to reveal himself as Monk, and essentially cut the history of American popular music in two.

In 1947, tenor saxophonist (among many other things) Ike Quebec pitched Lorraine Gordon on this pianist who was both young and not so young, by the standards of jazz, especially in this era. Flames didn’t burn that long; the key was the hotness of the flame, not the duration.

Quebec is an invaluable figure in the Blue Note Records saga, a major-domo in addition to being—and remaining—an underrated player himself. Gordon was married to Blue Note co-founder Alfred Lion, and from the first instance she heard Monk, a single truth announced itself to her and would continue to do so, a runout groove that never ended: She had to have the music of this man, who had ditched the trappings of stride, the blazing “bet-you-can’t-top-this” showmanship of bebop, and the classicisms of Rachmaninoff, the modern finger-buster of the piano. Monk had become a showman, yes, but his art was the internal; he took the indigo of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “dark night of the soul” and induced it to arise in a state of pre-dawn triumph, leaping and loping. We might as well also think of Monk as holding a pair of scissors in those most percussive fingers of his, because there is jazz before Monk and there is jazz after Monk, and no one—not Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, or Miles Davis at their various stops along the style-shifting line—made such a clear demarcation point.

It’s great, in theory, to be a genius—who would wish to be a ham-and-egger?—but it’s a hell of a lot better if there’s an audience for what you do. If there isn’t, or until there is, you’re going to need someone to stick by you. That was Gordon more than anyone. She’d later speak of how poorly Monk’s recordings sold, and what must have been a depressing encounter with a record store owner in Harlem, who told her, “He can’t play, lady. The guy has two left hands.”

Two left hands? The catch with Monk in October 1947 is that he would have thought two left hands didn’t have to be a limitation. Rather, a surplus on the southpaw side of the ledger could be an advantage, an unshackling from the expected. A release of the now-free, new, true.

There is jazz before Monk and there is jazz after Monk, and no one—not Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, or Miles Davis at their various stops along the style-shifting line—made such a clear demarcation point.

Thelonious Sphere Monk changed everything in jazz—and we may as well extend this to include all of American popular music—on October 15, 1947, at that first Blue Note session, in which four songs (that’s all he needed) were committed to tape. Monk had turned 30 five days before, and this was how his latest decade began, with the advent of a new musical form that stood outside the idea of form. We use the line “It is what it is,” but imbue it with a supernal voice—be it that of a god or an alien, a cosmic power who knows—and we have a great summary for Monk’s music on this day. It is Thelonious Monk. The man and the figure coalesce, in work larger than both.

There were three Monk-led Blue Note sessions that autumn, for a total of 14 cuts. Art Blakey is the drummer at each of the dates, and a lot was asked of him. We think of Blakey as a polyrhythmic dynamo, less a bopper than a hard bopper. Monk was neither. He made the sounds of the psyche and subconscious audible. His music at these dates is both introspective and somatic—one feels as though an arm can be outstretched and fingers will encounter Monk’s chords and leitmotifs dangling in the air. It’s free jazz via rhythm & blues, and the pulse has less to do with the beat of the band or the drummer than with the human heart itself. We all have irregular emotional rhythms; Blakey has to read off of Monk’s. That’s going to take some chops of a special nature.

Gene Ramey played bass for the first two sessions, with Danny Quebec West on alto saxophone and Billy Smith on tenor for the initial date. In the 1920s, Louis Armstrong changed how jazz musicians thought about playing. For a couple decades leading up to the start of Monk’s Blue Note stint, Duke Ellington had challenged jazz composers on the idea of what it meant to write. But now Thelonious Monk is about to alter how musicians think about where they’re able to venture within jazz, which is also no longer the music they thought it was. And when we think like that, we’re experiencing the world differently.

No matter how well-versed you were in the innovations and innovators of jazz history up until that day in October 1947, there is no actuarial chart that could have prepared you for Monk, the Blue Note maven. If ever there was a mode of music that said, “Yes, you can go there, come with!” it would be the Monk mode right from that original quartet of songs.

“Humph” begins the date, and Blakey plays like a free jazzer who might as well have been teleported back from 1964. There are chunks of Albert Ayler in this sound, but the Monk kicker is that no one—or no band—could replicate what he did, nor should they want to. His ethos is constant ideation, and the inner world made audible to the outer.

The solo he takes in “Humph” is unlike any that had been played on the piano to that point in jazz. It’s this glowing shard of spall brought to life, moving left to right and back again, this cleaved gemstone of energy, but also bubbling, as if it might shoot skyward. Two takes of “Evonce” have big-band scope, but again the interiority can’t be overlooked, for that interiority is a form of home key. You can dance to this music, but something about it tells you that you should do so while alone, the same as you might do your best thinking.

“Thelonious,” meanwhile, is worthy of its name. The horns and Monk’s piano venture in different directions, like two weather systems passing each other on opposite sides of the road, but with a plan to meet up down the end of the block. Monk’s piano talks to us, and also to itself, as certain Shakespearean characters do. Blakey’s cymbal work creates a fog bank on all sides of the listener and around the central musical theme, the riparian-like flow of the Monk voice. There’s a psychedelic tinge, which is really a loosening of parts of the mind that are more commonly tamped down. This is Monk the unlocker of doors.

A week and a half later, on October 24, he was back at WOR. Having advanced his unprecedented approach to jazz, Monk the composer would now drop two masterworks of the American songbook: “Ruby, My Dear” and “Well You Needn’t.” The love song is a staple of this country’s musical history. We relate to love songs even without trying, and often without wanting to; love is going to hurt as often as it doesn’t. Monk was also a blues man, but no jazz musician has been a blues man as he is on “Ruby, My Dear.” The blues is a road that has many paths radiating in all directions from it, but Monk’s lane wasn’t shaded the way the others were. Sun comes through its trees, yes, but it’s hard-won sunlight that one deserves only when one is open and absorbs, as Monk was and did.

“Well You Needn’t” has no words, but if you listen carefully, you’ll hear a plethora of them all the same. It offers thoughts, observations, voices concerns, asks questions. It listens. If you ever wanted to hear what the sound of a song listening is, listen yourself to “Well You Needn’t.” It’s a short story, a play, a novel. Those two left hands are imbuing a song—let’s call it a work, because “Well You Needn’t” transcends song—with life, and also—and this is what the genius does—imbuing it with us. No wonder Lorraine Gordon flipped for Monk. Here is what she was talking about when she told that man with the record store in Harlem, “You don’t know anything.” Let’s hope that eventually he learned.

Alfred Lion pledged that he’d put out Monk’s music if nary a soul bought it. We can’t overstate the importance of the fealty of these people: first Quebec, then Gordon, then Lion. Without them, Monk doesn’t get to the world. Lion and Gordon in particular had two crucial qualities that may well strike us as utterly foreign today, as Monk struck his few listeners at the time: faith and vision.

The third and final Blue Note session of 1947 happened on November 21, just before Thanksgiving. Monk served his bounty in the form of canonical numbers “In Walked Bud,” “Monk’s Mood,” and “’Round Midnight.” Bob Paige is on bass, Sahib Shihab on alto, and George Taitt on trumpet. “In Walked Bud” is another story-work that requires no words. Think of how much of our interaction is word-free: the significance of a look, the darting of eyes at a certain moment, the nod of the head. Monk’s music houses all of that gestural expression. He’s put so much in there, like some painting crammed with a seemingly infinite number of brushstrokes yet still as ordered and sensical as nature herself.

“Monk’s Mood” ambulates slower than the other Blue Note numbers. Think of it like a piece at peace with itself. We’re told how challenging it can be to sit in a room alone and think. The world created the cellphone so we wouldn’t have to, and could stare at something else, rather than look into who we are. To do the latter requires motility, paradoxically enough. Monk knew that—in his music, anyway—and “Monk’s Mood” is also Monk’s ethos, his method, and his own faith and vision. It’s the man, the figure, and the artist, and the art bigger than any of it. The ultimate “the.” Lighter than a moonbeam but as heavy as a world, or a stack of them arrayed in swirling, Monkian motion.

Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming writes fiction and nonfiction on myriad topics—art, film, music, sports, literature, current events—for a wide range of publications, and talks regularly on radio and podcasts. His most recent books are an entry in the 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, a volume about the 1951 film Scrooge as the ultimate work of cinematic terror, and the story collection, If You [ ]: Fabula, Fantasy, F**kery, Hope. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com (where he maintains the unique online journal, the Many Moments More blog) and on Twitter @colinfleminglit. He lives in Boston and has contributed to JazzTimes since 2006.