Believe it or not, Art Tatum was perhaps the biggest pianistic influence on Thelonious Monk!
At first glance, the two jazz giants couldn’t be farther apart. Tatum displayed a monstrous technique, while Monk was criticized for having “no technique.” Tatum was and still is the “gold standard” of pianism by which every other jazz pianist can be compared, while Monk is kind of off in his own corner. (Keith Jarrett, a huge Monk fan, said that he views Monk as standing over on the side of the road.) And even though Tatum was head and shoulders above every other pianist, his playing style was still firmly entrenched in mainstream jazz. Monk, on the other hand went in an entirely unique direction.
How Thelonious Monk developed his individual style was always a bit of a mystery to me. Although he was one of the founders of bebop, he never really played what we think of as “bebop.” Even many of his bebop contemporaries found it difficult to play with him. (There’s a famous example of Miles Davis asking Monk not to comp behind Davis’ solo on “Bag’s Groove.”)
So how did Monk develop his idiosyncratic style?
When I was in my late teens, my piano teacher Billy Taylor gave me a clue. Billy had heard Monk play when Thelonious was still a young man and hadn’t developed his mature style yet. Billy told me that at that point, Monk was still under the influence of Art Tatum and “played like Tatum.” Taylor didn’t mean that Monk played Tatum note-for-note or with the same exact technique. Rather, he was referring to Monk’s general style at the time, which was modeled after Tatum’s approach to playing jazz.
Well, it’s taken me a few decades of listening to both pianists to connect the dots, but recently I had an ‘aha’ moment and now see the connection between Tatum and Monk very clearly. In fact, there are so many now-obvious connections between the way these two jazz giants play piano that I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to notice them!
The reason the influence is a little obscure this is that even though Thelonious Monk came directly out of Art Tatum, he disguised his tracks so well that the influence is not very apparent when we listen to each pianist separately. We have to listen to them back-to-back and compare their approaches to playing jazz. If we listen only to their overall sound via their soloing and chord voicings, we won’t hear the connection. (Indeed, Monk’s chord voicings and pianistic touch are more influenced by Duke Ellington that they are by Tatum.) Despite this, Monk’s overall approach is directly derived from Tatum in a number of specific ways.
Here are 8 ways that Art Tatum influenced Thelonious Monk:
1. Both pianists are an “acquired taste.” Tatum and Monk can be off-putting for first-time listeners. To say it bluntly, a lot of people don’t like either one the first time they hear their music. I’ve heard aspiring jazz pianists say that Tatum plays “too fast” and that Monk “sounds weird.” This is because both pianists took an uncompromising approach to playing jazz. They each developed a highly unique style that was somewhat outside the mainstream of their time. Tatum crammed in massive amounts of musical information into every measure which can be overwhelming for many listeners. And Monk is, well… Monk! His angular lines and dissonant voicings can take a while to get used to. By all accounts, Monk was very methodical in how he developed his musical style. If he did indeed begin his career by playing in a similar vein to Tatum, as Billy Taylor noted, then he may have taken courage and inspiration from Tatum’s uncompromising individuality as well.
While we can hear this in just about every recording Tatum ever made, his playing is perhaps most overwhelming in uptempo pieces like “Tiger Rag.” This is the kind of recording that made many excellent jazz pianists, such as Oscar Peterson, temporarily quit piano!
Now let’s check out a similar Monk recording: “Trinkle Tinkle.” Monk’s melody has some elements of Tatum’s virtuosity in its flourishes, and many good jazz pianists have thrown their hands up in vain after trying to solo over the tune’s challenging chord progression!
2. Both pianists played with a Swing Era musical feel. This can be expected from someone like Tatum, who, after all, came of age during the swing era. But isn’t it shocking that Monk, one of bebop’s creators, never completely embraced a “bebop” rhythmic feel in his use of syncopation and general style of swinging? This is particularly evident when he’s playing solo piano. One aspect of this is Monk’s fondness for playing stride piano with his left hand. Even though many of Monk’s bebop contemporaries, such as Bud Powell, could play stride, they rarely chose to do so. Monk continued to base his solo piano style on a stride left hand throughout his entire career.
Listen to how deftly Tatum goes in and out of stride on Sweet Lorraine:
Why did Monk choose not to “modernize” his rhythmic approach in the same way that his fellow beboppers did? There are some accounts of him becoming frustrated that many musicians were jumping on the bebop bandwagon and using his musical ideas. So he resolved to go in another direction. For him, this musical direction apparently involved combining “modern” melodies and chord voicings with an at-times traditional rhythmic feel. Played in his own way, of course!
Here’s Monk playing full-out stride piano!
3. Both Tatum and Monk loved to rework and reharmonize standard tunes. Monk’s re-imagining of the song “Carolina Moon,” for example, went far beyond what most musicians of his time would do. Tatum, of course, excelled at re-imagining the popular songs of the day. Check out his version of “Song Of The Vagabonds.” In addition, both pianists could improvise fluently over the most difficult chord progressions.
4. Monk uses scale-based runs in the same way that Tatum did. Tatum’s fast, descending pentatonic runs, which are such a big part of his “sound,” became Monk’s fast descending whole-tone runs. The only difference is in the relative sounds of the scales each pianist used. Incidentally, Monk is the only pianist of his generation to use runs in this way, in that they fulfilled textural rather than melodic functions.
Here is a classic example of Tatum using runs in this way, some of which are harmonized in fourths!
Now listen to how Monk uses scales in this recording, especially at 0:39. After listening to Tatum, it’s pretty obvious where he got the idea from!
5. They both had a comping style that was busy to the point of being intrusive. This was very challenging for soloists to improvise over.
Listen to how busy Tatum plays “behind” clarinetist Buddy DeFranco. It’s almost comical to imagine DeFranco trying to stay focused with this much going on behind him! I enjoy the overall sound, however. It’s almost like Tatum is imitating the polyphony of early jazz in these moments!
Incidentally, I once remarked to Billy Taylor that I didn’t think Tatum was a good accompanist. Billy smiled and said, “Well, he could be when he wanted to be. Listen to him play behind Ben Webster.” (I’ll invite you to check out that recording too. It’s a classic pairing!)
Now listen to how “lively” Monk’s comping is behind tenor sax soloist Charlie Rouse on this live recording. As with Tatum, the overall effect is thrilling, even if it made the soloists work extra hard to remain focused!
6. Both Tatum and Monk generally preferred to solo in and around a song’s melody, rather than create their own melodic improvisations from the ground up. Their solos frequently consist of creative variations on the song’s melody.
Monk’s solo on his tune Nutty is a good example of how he would often stay with the melody during his solo, embellishing it at will:
7. Both pianists had a complete, uncompromising, and well-developed musical concept and personality. Combined with their unique approaches, this made them stand somewhat outside the mainstream of their time. When they performed in groups, the other musicians were required to “fit in” with them, not the other way around.
8. Both Tatum and Monk convey the entire history of jazz piano in their playing. They made earlier jazz devices an integral part of their approach at the same time as they looked towards the future. Tatum played with a harmonic sophistication that few could match until the 1950s and Monk’s motivic compositional methods wouldn’t be widely emulated until the 1960s.
Listen again to how Monk begins his recording of Carolina Moon, above. The intro isn’t even “jazz.” It’s 1890’s “parlour piano,” which poignantly evokes the song’s history and culture before the horns come in with Monk’s radical re-working of the melody. Tatum frequently did this kind of thing too, like in his version of Elegy:
The more I listen to both Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk, the more similarities I see between them. Seen in the context of Billy Taylor’s observation that the young Monk was played in the style of Tatum, I think the direct link is clear. Monk was a genius. But even geniuses don’t pull everything out of thin air. Part of Monk’s genius consisted in how adroitly he transformed Tatum’s pianistic approach into something that sounded completely different. He covered his musical tracks well!
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