Thelonious Sphere Monk is undoubtedly one of the most influential composers in jazz, alongside Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. Many of his pieces have become jazz standards, but his route to get there was anything but easy, as we’ll see in this guide to the most famous Thelonious Monk songs…
Born on October 10 1917, in North Carolina, the young Thelonious Monk found himself aged 5 moving to Manhattan and what would soon become the heart of the jazz world.
His early infatuation with learning the popular stride piano style of the day, followed by his position at the heart of the 1940s bebop scene provided a melting pot of ingredients which would create a composer and improvisor who divided opinion for his idiosyncratic and highly recognisable style.
With long periods in his career with little work and even less airplay, his wife once famously called a radio station at asked them to play some music by ‘The Loneliest Monk’.
Despite passing away in his 60s in 1982, a large part of his output was focused on a 2-decade period.
But what a period it was, as these 10 Thelonious Monk song highlights showcase!
Well, You Needn’t
From the album Genius of Modern Music: Vol. 1, (Blue Note – Rec: October 24, 1947)
Monk emerged as an important player on the 1940s bebop scene where he worked with the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. His compositional style, however, shied away from many of the harmonic and melodic devices of that style of jazz.
Recorded in 1947, the Thelonious Monk song Well You Needn’t is a great example of this, with its chromatically ascending and descending chords.
Despite its relatively unusual harmonic structure, the strength of his writing wins out, with the tune remaining a jazz standard to this day.
Well You Needn’t was apparently inspired by the jazz singer Charles Beamon who, when told by Monk that he had written a piece and was naming it after him, inadvertently gave the tune its name by replying “Well, You need not”.
The original version (our top listening tip) is recorded with a trio of Monk, Gene Ramey on bass and Art Blakey on drums.
From the album Genius of Modern Music: Vol. 1 (Blue Note – Rec: November 21, 1947)
Even a composer with more than 70 acclaimed compositions to his name needs one standout song, and Monk found it in 1947 with ‘Round Midnight.
Both his most popular and most-recorded tune, its first outing was actually on a recording by trumpeter Cootie Williams in August 1944, at the suggestion of pianist Bud Powell.
Our recommended introduction to the song, though, is from three months later when Monk captured it in a quintet session with George Taitt (trumpet) and Sahib Shihab (alto sax).
Whilst neither do it justice in our opinion, nothing can detract from the pianist’s contribution, or that of Art Blakey who was one of Monk’s most sympathetic accompanists.
From the album Wizard of the Vibes (Blue Note – Rec: July 2,948)
It’s hard to imagine today, but Monk struggled for critical and commercial success for much of his early career, with stories of record stores and radio stations shunning his work as poor.
Monk found his most important early industry supporter in Alfred Lion, around 1947.
The Blue Note producer recorded many of Monk’s earliest compositions for the label between 1947 and 1952, documenting a period of rapid musical evolution.
Although not commercially successful at the time, the producer was convinced that Monk’s music was of importance and continued pushing.
Blue Note amassed a huge amount of material from Monk in a remarkably short period of time. So much so that some of the sessions were issued under the joint leader of vibes player Milt Jackson and Monk.
His early composition ‘Epistrophy’ (the first song to be copyrighted by Monk in June 1941 and co-written with Kenny Clark) is somewhat atonal in nature and, like ‘Round Midnight, was first recorded by Cootie Williams in 1942.
From the album Wizard of the Vibes (Blue Note Rec: July 2, 1948)
A relentless artist, the song “Evidence” (first recorded in 1948) is fascinating not just for its musical structure, but the fact that it evolved considerably over the following decade.
Based on the jazz tune ‘Just You, Just Us’ the title is a play-on-words whereby ‘Just Us’ led to ‘Justice’ and to the final name of ‘Evidence’.
Various live versions – including the unearthed 1957 Carnegie Hall recording with Coltrane which electrified the jazz world in 2005 – have made it a firm favourite with modern jazz musicians, if not the wider jazz community.
Straight, No Chaser
From Genius of Modern Music: Vol.2 (Blue Note – Rec: July 23, 1951)
As with many jazz musicians at the time, the church played an important role in Monk’s musical education and, aged 17, he found himself touring on church organ with an evangelist.
Whilst not as obvious as many of his conteporaries of the hard bop era, these elements of blues and gospel still found their way into his music, as his 1951 version of Straight, No Chaser showcases.
Another composition that makes use of chromatics in the melody line, this is Monk’s take on a Bb blues.
Whilst it’s been recorded hundreds of times since, his quintet recording with Al McKibbon on bass, Art Blakey on drums, Milt Jackson on vibes and a much more assured Sahib Shihab on alto is the definitive version for us.
This was one of the Thelonious Monk songs which would become a staple throughout much of his career and can be heard on many of the live albums released with his various bands.
From the album Thelonious Monk Trio (Prestige – Rec: October 15, 1952)
In August 1951, police found narcotics in a car occupied by Monk and Bud Powell. When Monk refused to testify against his friend (who the narcotics were presumed to have belonged to) he lost his Cabaret Card and, with it, the ability to play in many of the cities venues.
Whilst this may have been a big loss to the city’s jazz fans, it was perhaps jazz history’s gain, as it resulted in one of his most prolific periods as a composer.
One of the greatest Thelonious Monk songs to come out of this time was Monk’s Dream, released in 1952.
Hearing the original recording is a wonderful way to hear Monk and his music at this stage; the trio suits him perfectly and we can hear clearly the structure of his melodies.
Monk’s Dream is relatively conventional by Monk’s standards – a 32-bar AABA song, albeit with some dissonance thrown in for good measure.
If you’re interested in another angle on the song, Jon Hendricks later added lyrics to, which can be heard on the Carmen McRae album “Carmen Sings Monk” from 1990.
From the album Brilliant Corners (Riverside – Rec: October 9, 1956)
In 1954 Monk followed the lead of many jazz musicians at the time in travelling to perform in Paris.
It proved a pivotal moment in his life as it was here, backstage, that he met Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter. The wealthy patron not only supported him musically and financially for the rest of his life, but also did her best to keep him healthy and, on one famous occasion, out of jail.
Just two years after they met, Monk penned one of his most popular ballads – an unusual 33-bar structure – which was recorded for the Brilliant Corners album and dedicated to his patron Pannonica.
The original recording features Ernie Henry on alto (in the ensemble only) and an on-form Sonny Rollins on tenor; it’s a splendid performance and also notable for hearing Monk playing celeste as well as piano.
Despite the regard with which he was held in by his peers, this Thelonious Monk album was considered his first commercial success and perhaps proving him right when quoted as saying:
“Play your own way and let the public pick up on what you are doing. Even if it does take them ten or fifteen years”
Crepuscule with Nellie
From the album Monk’s Music (Riverside – Rec: June 25 & 26, 1957)
The other woman in Monk’s life – his wife Nellie – was the inspiration for his 1957 composition which was recorded just a month later for the album Monk’s Music.
Originally called ‘Twilight With Nellie’ it was at the suggestion of Pannonica de Koenigswarter that it was retitled using the French word for twilight; thus becoming ‘Crepuscule with Nellie’.
It’s a through-composed piece with no solos; the first half is given over to Thelonious with just bass and drums, whilst the song concludes with a septet featuring trumpeter Ray Copeland alongside Gigi Gryce, Coleman Hawkins (an early supporter of Monk’s) and John Coltrane on saxophones.
Monk biographer Robin D. G. Kelley described it aptly as “Monk’s concerto”.
From the album Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk (Atlantic – Rec: May 15, 1957)
Whilst highly original in his compositional style, Monk was not averse to the time-honoured tradition of contrafacts in jazz.
Rhythm-A-Ning is one such example: a tune (originally written in Bb) based on the chord changes to George Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’.
It was released on the album Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk which is regarded as a one of the essential albums in both musicians’ catalogues.
The other major contribution on this recording is by saxophonist Johnny Griffin who shows himself to be a fine interpreter of Monk’s music.
Rhythm-A-Ning is another tune that Monk would continue to feature in his live sets, and is a much-covered favourite among jazz musicians.
Once again, lyrics were later written to the piece by Jon Hendricks and titled ‘Listen to Monk’.
From the album Underground (Columbia – Rec: December 14, 1967)
Whilst many of the most famous Thelonious Monk songs came in the 50s and early 1960s, one gem arrived late.
Notable as one of the few waltzes written by the pianist, Ugly Beauty emerged in the period in which he managed to keep one working band together the longest.
It was drummer Ben Riley who suggested the waltz treatment and the song was duly recorded in that format for the album Underground.
For once, though, that wasn’t it’s first airing: it appears to have been captured on film a month earlier for a television broadcast.
Played magnificently by Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone, the tune is unique in Monk’s output as being the only waltz he composed.
Round Up: Discovering More Thelonious Monk Songs
Thelonious Monk died of a stroke on February 17, 1982, after more than a decade of relative obscurity due to ongoing health issues.
As this small selection from his discography hopefully demonstrates, his contribution to music cannot be underestimated.
It may have taken a long time for his unique and idiosyncratic piano and compositional style to be appreciated, but many of these Thelonious Monk songs are now played by musicians all over the world.
In fact, so influential is he as a composer that many jazz greats who came after have dedicated years of study and hours of recording to his music.
Digging into these albums – including from musicians such as soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Fred Hersch, Chick Corea, Carmen McRae and Arthur Blythe – is another great angle to approach the genius of the Thelonious Monk discography.
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