A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
If you’re going to learn just one blues tune in The Real Book, “Blue Monk” is a good choice. (But since you’re going to learn not one but several blues tunes, go on to Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser” next!)

Since Thelonious Monk played and recorded “Blue Monk” repeatedly throughout his career, you’ll find it on many of his albums. But each version somehow manages to sound fresh. And as with so many of Monk’s compositions, it sounds both modern and traditional at the same time.

Here are some recommended recordings/videos:
(for international readers who may not have access to these YouTube links, I’ve indicated the original album names wherever possible so you can listen to them on music streaming services, etc.)

Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane At Carnegie Hall

Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter, 1986 (video)

Marcus Roberts, 1988 (video)

Marcus Roberts, used to play this version of “Blue Monk” as a featured solo when he was in trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ group.

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Blue Monk” contains several musical elements that are characteristic of Monk’s writing in general. First off, the theme is extremely catchy. Despite its chromaticism, you could easily find yourself humming it to yourself while walking down the street.

Secondly, it’s highly motivic. Even though Monk purposefully cultivated a “rough” sound in his piano playing, his compositional use of motifs (short phrases that make up a piece’s architecture) is as sophisticated as anyone’s.

Third, there’s a place in most of Monk’s medium-tempo pieces where the melody’s rhythm changes up a little to keep it interesting and slightly unpredictable. In “Blue Monk, this happens at the beginning of the fourth bar.

As you’ll see in the leadsheet, the first measure of “Blue Monk” contains the main motif, an ascending motif that connects the 3rd and 5th of the chord chromatically. This type of “riff” goes back to the beginnings of jazz and can be used as an improvisational tool. Try using this in various ways during your solo. You can play it as written, or you can play it upside down, descending from the 5th to the 3rd. See how many other creative ways you can think of using it as the basis of your solo.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
Summary of Monk’s recordings, by Chris Slawecki

Jazz Piano Tip #33: Blue Monk

A solo technique from Thelonious Monk

Blue Monk: Journey Through The Real Book #38

Here's why Thelonious Monk's music is so hard to play

The Best Way To Use The Real Book

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