In the world of music, nothing compares much to jazz in terms of creativity, ingenuity, and excitement. The nonstop improvisation caters to all musicians and audiences, and serves as an outlet of expression for the performers. Jazz had been around for a very long time, and became extremely popular even before rock and punk had a chance. Today, jazz is still extensively active in the musical fields, and many audiences still enjoy the old-fashioned music that was created decades ago. But the history of jazz has so much to tell in its course of evolution.
Even many would tag this genre as a style of the past; its past events are exactly the elements that make these songs lovable even today. It is the continuing development of the genre that never fails to add excitement and twists to new compositions. One composer and musician that really made an impact in jazz is Thelonious Monk. He is a pianist, arrangers, composer, and most of all, a well-rounded jazz musician who helped define the genre during his time. Monk was born in 1917 on North Carolina, and immediately learned the piano at the age of 6.
During his teen years, he started playing around clubs, earning money by playing jazz piano (Gourse, 2001). He soon became popular and a local attraction to many due to his expertise and freedom in expressing his solos. Many similar famous artists came by to watch him play, and they would jam with him right after his set. Essentially, Thelonious Monk met a lot of people that would help him reinvent the jazz era at that time (Solis, 2007). Monk was known to be a foreplayer in the jazz style of bop. Bop is then considered to be a small club’s form, since it requires minimal players.
Unlike the big bands, the bop bands normally consist of a drummer, a bassist, a horn player and a pianist. Since Thelonious Monk played on small clubs for most of his life, he focused more on creating songs that would sound good and thick even for a set up as small as his (Solis, 2007). Additionally, he became one of the leaders on the Blue Note Records, a record solely dedicated in bop jazz. Being one of the pioneers, the record held most of his early songs that would be considered today as standard bop songs. One of his early recordings is the song Evidence.
This is a medium tempo based song, which swings really well. One of the flaws of many early bop songs is that they don’t swing as much as the big band songs do. Big bands have several layers of instruments, and swinging is relatively easier to do. And for an audience, hearing one entire section is very captivating, and their accents and upbeat rhythms create strong sense of swing for the band. But in Monk’s song Evidence, he is able to create a real strong swinging rhythm. One of the factors that helped this is the unison rhythm of all instruments during the first section of the song (Gourse, 2001).
Instead of playing a fast melodic line, the instruments focused on accenting the notes required for swinging, or the upbeat notes. And during the transition towards the second melodic part, the players played nothing but the upbeat notes alone. It gave a sense of excitement, and on a listener like me, it left me hanging, not knowing when the note or the beat will be played. Once on the improvisational section, the bass player created a walking line, accompanied by a strong swing by the drummer. During this section, the swing is also kept constant by the pianist, Monk.
He frequently accents the swing notes but never overplays the soloist (Sheridan, 2001). In another song entitled Ruby My Dear, Thelonious Monk showcased his talent in creating ballads. Ballads are slow paced, and normally evoke a slow-moving dance (Sheridan, 2001). But in Ruby My Dear, Monk was able to infuse excitement to the rather slow, straightforward song. He did this by starting a ballad tune, then incorporating accented figures with tension on their sounds. These are normally out of tune, but by adding it with a sudden change in the horn’s melody, it suddenly sounds fine.
Odd figures are also added, such as the sudden change into an upbeat piano rhythm during the solo. It essence, the ballad factor of the song became fused with many other styles that made the song really interesting. It defied the common notion of a ballad being boring and lifeless, for the song Ruby My Dear can evoke several feelings and expressions. Aside from composing songs, Thelonious Monk is also famous for recreating songs by other artists. In one of his albums, he played songs by Duke Ellington, aptly named Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington.
Here he revealed how he is able to take one recording and create something new from it. In one song, It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing, he was able to personally add his touch while still retaining the original feel of the song. Basically, Duke Ellingtons version of this song had a singer in it, and focused more on the melodic aspect of it (Sheridan, 2001). The improvisation was simple, and not too long. It was also a relatively easy song to play, and many considered it as a standard for jazz songs.
When Thelonious Monk did his take, he incorporated his skillfully fast, yet tasteful piano solos. Very evident are his jumpy chord patterns, and his fast but swinging arpeggios. Whether new or old, Thelonious Monk made a statement about his music. He is one of the first musicians who tried to do and compose music that he really loves, and not what the label or the audience required him to. Today, Thelonious Monk is remembered for all his music and his performances. His compositions were a new step for the bop music, and fresh ideas came rushing in to many composers and musicians during his time.
He became a pioneer of something really important, and changed the course of jazz history. Performance wise, he is always passionate on his craft. Sometimes standing up and dancing around, he shows everyone how much he loves music. References: Gourse, L. 2001. Straight, no chaser: The life and genius of Thelonious Monk. New Jersey: Music Sales Corp Sheridan, C. 2001. Brilliant corners: a bio-discography of Thelonious Monk. United States: Greenwood Publishing Group Solis, G. 2007. Monk’s music: Thelonious Monk and jazz history in the making. Oxford: University of California Press