Born Oct. 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina
Died Feb. 17, 1982 in Englewood, New Jersey
“You know, anybody can play a composition and use far-out chords and make it sound wrong. It’s making it sound right that’s not easy.” -Thelonious Monk
As jazz pianist and composer, Thelonious Monk was one of America’s greatest musicians. When he was four, he moved with his mother and siblings to New York, where he soon learned to play the piano. He performed as pianist and organist at the local Baptist church, at rent parties, and at talent contests at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Though he was a good student and athlete, he dropped out of school as a sophomore to pursue a musical career. After a couple years traveling as a pianist with a faith healer, he returned to Harlem, which was the center of the jazz world.
His original piano style and innovative compositions led to the creation of bebop, the style of jazz with which he and Dizzy Gillespie are most associated. He created a whole new architecture in his music, with a dramatic use of pauses and silences. “Everything I play is different,” Monk once explained, “different melody, different harmony, different structure. Each piece is different from the other. . . . When the song tells a story, when it gets a certain sound, then it’s through . . . completed.” Although he was a seminal force in the development of jazz, he did not make his first recording until 1947. His career was later beset with financial, drug, and mental problems, although he remained devoted to his family and to his music. His son Thelonious S. Monk, Jr. has carried on his father’s legacy in jazz, both as a performer and as an educator, establishing the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz which recently sponsored “Jazz in the Classroom” students to perform at the White House music series inaugurated by Michele Obama.
Watch video of Monk playing Epistrophy in Paris, 1966.
Teaching Tip: Introduce children to the music of Thelonious Monk in Mysterious Thelonious. Chris Raschka’s hardback/CD recreates in words and pictures Monk’s “Misterioso,” and Richard Allen “sings” the text while the music is played. Children should be exposed to many styles of music, and Chris Raschka’s children’s books and CDs on jazz are the ideal place to start.