Your (bebop) roots are showing, Mr. Thelonious Monk!!!

The jazz pianist Thelonious Monk and the bebop style of the 1940s-50s have always had an elusive relationship. Monk is widely credited as being one of the style’s originators, having served as “house pianist” at Minton’s nightclub where bebop was developed. He also composed the early bebop anthem “52nd Street Theme.” And although his playing fit right in with that of his bebop compatriots, his style is very different from theirs and often harks back to the earlier swing era (and even earlier when he played solo piano, to the stride style of the 1920s.)

Monk also eschewed the virtuosity of the other bebop musicians like Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Indeed, he plays so idiosyncratically that many musicians, Oscar Peterson included, didn’t think he was a very good pianist. Sure, his compositions were challenging, but to many listeners, his piano playing seemed child-like and technically stunted. Not fluid or technically accomplished in any traditional way.

Thelonious gave hints that this was deliberate on his part. He told one interviewer that when he heard other pianists starting to copy him, he decided to go in another direction entirely. There are also shades of Art Tatum in his playing (most notably in his descending runs and penchant for reharmonization) but since we’ve never heard him play like Tatum, we can’t be sure he ever had a truly virtuosic piano technique.

But a few years ago I read an interview with a jazz musician who had stopped by Monk’s house back in the 40s or 50s and heard him play a few songs on his own piano. (I can’t remember the musician’s name, but I do have the story correct.) This was at a time when Monk was being widely criticized for not sounded like bebop icon Bud Powell. Well, Monk apparently went into a spot-on Bud Powell impersonation at the piano, playing exactly in Powell’s style. Seeing that his friend was dumbfounded, Monk merely winked and said, “Don’t tell anyone.” Can you imagine???!!!

Well, I wasn’t sure how much to believe this story without hearing recorded proof. Surely there must be some recording of Monk, one of bebop’s prime originators, playing true bebop!

Even though I know many of Monk’s recordings, I was in my car yesterday listening to WKCR’s Monk birthday broadcast, and they played an album I had never heard in it’s entirety: Thelonious Alone in San Francisco, from 1959. It’s all solo piano and about halfway through, a blues tune came over the airwaves. As soon as it began, I started wondering what the improvised solo section would be like, since on standard-type tunes, Monk often bases his solo on the melody. But on a blues tune, particularly one with a repetitive melody like the one I was hearing, I guessed that he would probably stretch out a bit more and completely improvise the solo from scratch.

I guessed correctly. As soon as he finished stating the melody to Bluehawk, Monk immediately launched into a jazz improvisation with little or no relation to the melody. But even better, he finally gave me what I was looking for: proof that he could play bebop just like Bud Powell! Listen for yourself. He just does this for a brief moment from :56 – 1:07, but it’s more than enough to satisfy my curiosity. And then, as if he realized that he had revealed too much, he quickly slips back into the distinctive style we all know and love: he gets “Monkish” again. But it was too late; we’ve all heard the same thing he played for his young friend who was sworn to secrecy.

Of course I’m just have a little fun with all of this. Monk didn’t need to validate his musicality by playing generic bebop. His musical genius shines through in every note he ever played. But for me, it’s nice to tie him stylistically to the roots of the music that he did, after all, help invent: bebop. So just to let you know, Mr. Thelonious Monk, your roots are showing. Your bebop roots, that is!

Here’s a musical lesson we can learn from Thelonious Monk (and another famous musician who may surprise you!)

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4 thoughts on “Your (bebop) roots are showing, Mr. Thelonious Monk!!!”

  1. I’ve wondered about the same thing regarding Monk and bebop. I think “Bluehawk” is a really good example. There are perhaps some other boppish moments. On the 1950 album he recorded with Bird and Diz, his brief solos on “My Melancholy Baby” and “Mohawk” show his bebop roots, although they are quite downtempo. On Genius of Modern Music Volume II, there’s the opening of “Skippy”, and parts of his solos on “Eronel” and the alternate take of “Four in One”. On his 1954 solo album, his improvised choruses on “Evidence” are quite boppish, although filled with his idiosyncratic adventurous harmonies. There’s also the first part of his solo on “I Want to be Happy” which he recorded with Sonny Rollins. Finally, his pre-bebop solos on “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” from the unofficial After Hours at Minton’s release show him displaying loads of technique! However, despite the linear approach, ornaments, and long phrases associated with bebop, all of these passages remain unmistakably Monk. I’d be interested to hear what you think of them!

  2. You’ve pointed out lots of good examples there, Hane! I haven’t heard the Minton’s recordings you listed, but the others do indeed sound more “bebopish” than most of what Monk played. One thing most of these solos have in common is that Monk isn’t improvising on the melody as much as he often did on his own tunes. Maybe that’s why he leaned toward bebop on these recordings. It’s hard to tell. BTW, after I wrote this blog post, I remembered that my piano teacher, Billy Taylor, had told me about when he first heard Monk. I think was in the early 1940s, but definitely before Monk recorded. Billy said that Monk hadn’t fully formed his own style yet, and was playing in the style of Art Tatum! Probably without Tatum’s technique, of course. It seems like Tatum’s pentatonic runs lived on in Monk’s whole tone runs. Also in the way that Monk liked to stick with the melody, constantly playing around with it in his solos. Thanks of sharing these great recordings!

  3. That’s really cool that you were taught by Billy Taylor! It must have been a transformative experience to learn directly from a true jazz original. I’m currently working my way through Monk’s biography by Robin Kelley. There are some brilliant anecdotes about how Monk used to privately show off his skills to anyone who doubted his technique, like that time you mentioned when he imitated Bud Powell. There’s a story about his niece questioning whether he could read music, so he picked up a Chopin book, turned to a very difficult piece, and played it at an extremely fast tempo. He apparently possessed much more technique and had a much deeper understanding of classical music than people assumed! I think Thomas Owens is on point when he says “in an instant he would switch from this unorthodox technique and execute a run or arpeggio with dazzling speed and unerring accuracy”. I must check out more of your blog!

    • Yeah, getting to know Billy and studying with him was special. He was a very nice person and as you know, a great person. One col thing is that I could ask him about anyone and get a first-hand answer, since he had known all the jazz greats. That’s a great anecdote about the Chopin piece. I’m not surprised. Have you heard this recording of Art Tatum playing Chopin?


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