In a genre full of originals, it’s perhaps fitting that one of the most unique musicians of all time – Thelonious Monk – is responsible for one of the most unusual and interesting jazz ballads ever written. In this article we dive into the story of Round Midnight, as well as pick 6 of our favourite renditions of all time.
One of the most popular and frequently recorded jazz songs in history, ‘Round Midnight was written many years before piano player Monk reached widespread renown, and took its time to enter the jazz standard repertoire.
That didn’t seem to worry the musician, though, who was quoted as saying “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”.
And pick it up they did: Round Midnight is widely credited as being the most-recorded song written by a jazz musician.
Monk was, at the time, regarded as an idiosyncratic performer whose style at the piano was angular and seemingly disjointed.
With his percussive style and unusual phrasing, some even questioned his technique as a piano player.
And whilst he was present in the early days of bebop at Minton’s Playhouse in the 1940s, it would be sometime before his music would become more widely accepted.
In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-fifties that he gained the recognition that his talents as a pianist and composer deserved.
Before that, though, there was “‘Round Midnight”.
The birth of 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 (who only passed away recently) has suggested that an early version by Monk was written as early as 1936.
In any case, 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 following year, it was recorded for the first time – not by Monk, but by trumpeter Cootie Williams who had been persuaded to do so by Bud Powell.
It would be another three years before Monk would record the tune himself, for the 1947 album ‘The Genius of Modern Music: Volume 1’ on Blue Note Records.
Who Wrote Round Midnight?
It might seem like a simple question, but the writing credits for the song include several other contributors.
Lyrics were first added by Thelma Murray, then later by Bernie Hanighen. The second set were copyrighted under the title “Grand Finale” on April 13, 1945.
To further complicate matters, trumpeter Cootie Williams also takes a credit for eight-bar interlude his ensemble added on the original recording. It’s seldom been used since (and never on a Monk version) yet he still pops up as a co-composer on cover versions from time to time.
A more famous addition was that of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, whose own introduction is frequently used to this day.
In fact, he originally wrote it for his arrangement of “I Can’t Get Started” before slotting it into Mink’s tune.
Monks Versions of Round Midnight
Whilst Monk’s original recording of his composition in 1947 didn’t make waves, his version a decade later certainly did.
The 1957 album ‘Thelonious Himself’ features a fascinating solo exploration of the song, providing a glimpse of Thelonious at work.
The pianist can be heard performing the tune again, this time live, for the album Thelonious Monk at the Blackhawk in 1960, as well as unofficial albums ‘In Stockholm’ (recorded 1961), at the It Club (1964) and in Tokyo (1970).
For fans of Monk, it’s a fascinating exercise to go and compare these different versions.
Miles Davis and ‘Round Midnight
As one of the most recorded jazz songs of all time, it’s interesting how different musicians interpret this iconic jazz ballad.
The unusual harmonic structure somehow pushes great players to step outside their comfort zone, and truly improvise; perhaps the composer’s original intention.
The are many famous recordings of “‘Round Midnight” but perhaps none more so than the live 1955 recording from the Newport Jazz Festival featuring Miles Davis.
As part of a band specially assembled for the event, a clean and rejuvenated Miles 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.
His remarkable solo on “‘Round Midnight” (played with a Harmon mute) stole the show and the resulting publicity secured Miles a record contract with Columbia Records.
The result: the trumpeter’s music was now financially and commercially viable and he was able to put together his own permanent band.
In 1957, Columbia released the album ‘Round About Midnight’ (featuring, of course, the title track) and the artists career continue it’s stratospheric trajectory.
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.
10 Essential Versions of Round Midnight
Alongside the iconic versions of ‘Round Midnight by Monk and Miles, the composition has been covered by some of the most famous jazz musicians of all time.
Whether you’re a musician learning the tune, or a fan looking to dive deeper into its inner workings, here are six additional versions you need to listen to…