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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