The Story Behind Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight

A Jazz Standard Born from Obscurity

One of the most popular and frequently recorded songs in the jazz repertoire was written by a musician whose career was not launched into overdrive by its success and popularity but rather stalled before it got going.

Pianist Thelonious Monk was not a household name, nor was he particularly well regarded among jazz fans at the time. An idiosyncratic performer, his style at the piano was often angular and seemingly disjointed.

He would hit the keys hard and have a very percussive feel to his playing. His use of unusual phrasing and voicings had not been heard before, and this was rumoured to be due to lack of technique.

Although Monk was one of the musicians who gathered at Minton’s Playhouse formulating the music that would become known as bebop in the early 1940s it would be sometime before his music would become more widely accepted.

This was partly due to his unique approach to jazz harmony and improvisation, and his unwillingness to change his way of playing.

He once said that “I say play your own way. Play your own way and let the public pick up on what you’re doing, even if it does take them ten or fifteen years”.

As far as his own career went that prophecy would turn out to be true, and it was not until the mid-fifties that he gained the recognition that his talents as a pianist and composer were given due appreciation. But before that there was “‘Round Midnight”.

There remains some confusion as to exactly when Monk composed “‘Round Midnight”, also known as “’Round About Midnight”, although it is believed to be around 1940 or ‘41.

Monk’s manager Harry Colomby has suggested that an early version by Monk was written as early as 1936. The pianist did not get around to copywriting his composition until September 24, 1943, registering it as a piece in C minor titled “I Need You So” with lyrics by Thelma Murray.

The very first recording of the tune was by trumpeter Cootie Williams having been persuaded to do so by Bud Powell.

Williams’s version of the composition was recorded on August 22, 1944, and it would be another three years before Thelonious Monk would record his own tune for the album ‘The Genius of Modern Music: Volume 1’ on Blue Note Records. The session took place on November 21, 1947, and Monk would go on to record the tune on several other albums.

The writing credits for the tune however include several other names whose contributions muddy the waters a little bit does not do so at the expense of Monk’s remarkable composition.

Several sets of lyrics have been written for the piece, firstly by Thelma Murray and then latterly under the title “‘Round Midnight” by Bernie Hanighen. The lyrics were in fact copyrighted twice, firstly on November 27, 1944 and under the title “Grand Finale” on April 13, 1945.

To further complicate matters, trumpeter Cootie Williams also takes a credit as he for his recording he wrote an eight bar interlude that he had the ensemble play on his original recording.

Interestingly, this eight bar measure has seldom been used since and never appeared on any of Monk’s versions of “‘Round Midnight”, yet Williams’s name would frequently be credited as co-composer when the tune was recorded by others. 

More important to the integrity of the music is the contribution of fellow trumpeter Dizzy as the introduction to the tune that is most often heard is by Gillespie.

Writing what is now the introduction to “‘Round Midnight” was originally conceived as the of Dizzy’s arrangement of “I Can’t Get Started” and adapting to use at the beginning of Monk’s tune.

In an about turn, the trumpeter has reused the arrangement in its original place at the end of “I Can’t Get Started” and it can be heard as such on the albums “Birks’ Works” recorded in 1957 and again on the 1963 recording “Something Old Something New”.

After Monk’s original recording of his composition in 1947, he recorded the tune again a decade later with very different results. A fascinating solo exploration of “‘Round Midnight” on the album ‘Thelonious Himself’, and as an added bonus on the original CD issue of the album released in 1987 is “‘Round Midnight – In progress”.

A fascinating twenty two minute glimpse of Thelonious at work and experimenting on how he wishes to approach the master take that appears on the original 1957 release. A subsequent reissue in 2008 omitted this outtake in favour of five alternative takes of other tunes. 

As the most recorded jazz standard it is funny how a composition can capture such interest and have a life of its own outside of the composer’s original intentions upon writing the music.

The are many famous recordings of “‘Round Midnight” but perhaps none more so that of the live recording from the Newport Jazz Festival of 1955, and the solo of Miles Davis

As part of a band assembled for the festival, a clean and rejuvenated Miles Davis found himself on stage with Monk at the piano, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay (both members of the Modern Jazz Quartet), Gerry Mulligan on baritone and tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims In a remarkable solo on “‘Round Midnight” played with a Harmon mute Davis stole the show.

The resulting publicity secured Miles a record contract with Columbia Records and ensuring that the trumpeter was now financially and commercially viable to put together his own permanent band.

In 1957, Columbia released the album ‘Round About Midnight’ that of course featured Miles playing “‘Round Midnight” and the trumpeter’s career was now on a firm setting with the support of major label behind him. 

The success of Miles at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival did Monk no harm either, and due to the show stopping performance on his composition, and his on playing the career of Thelonious Monk gradually gained momentum and acclaim.

Monk’s composition has been covered by some of the very greatest jazz musicians, and recorded versions of “‘Round Midnight” can be heard by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, June Christy, Jimmy Smith, Kenny Dorham, Gil Evans, Art Farmer, Mel Torme, Art Pepper, Grant Green, Wes Montgomery and many others. 

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