Monk's Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making

Monk's Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making

Monk's Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making

Monk's Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making


Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) was one of jazz's greatest and most enigmatic figures. As a composer, pianist, and bandleader, Monk both extended the piano tradition known as Harlem stride and was at the center of modern jazz's creation during the 1940s, setting the stage for the experimentalism of the 1960s and '70s. This pathbreaking study combines cultural theory, biography, and musical analysis to shed new light on Monk's music and on the jazz canon itself. Gabriel Solis shows how the work of this stubbornly nonconformist composer emerged from the jazz world's fringes to find a central place in its canon. Solis reaches well beyond the usual life-and-times biography to address larger issues in jazz scholarship--ethnography and the role of memory in history's construction. He considers how Monk's stature has grown, from the narrowly focused wing of the avant-garde in the 1960s and '70s to the present, where he is claimed as an influence by musicians of all kinds. He looks at the ways musical lineages are created in the jazz world and, in the process, addresses the question of how musicians use performance itself to maintain, interpret, and debate the history of the musical tradition we call jazz.


Perhaps the enjoyment of music is always suffused with past experience;
for me at least, this is true.

… In the swift change of American society in which the meanings
of one’s origin are so quickly lost, one of the chief values of living with
music lies in its power to give us an orientation in time. In doing so, it
gives significance to all those indefinable aspects of experience which
nevertheless make us what we are.


“Living with Music”

WHEN THELONIOUS MONK BEGAN RECORDING with Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff for the Blue Note record label in 1947, he had already made a permanent impression on the sound of jazz and the course it had taken to that point. As house pianist for jam sessions at the Harlem nightspot Minton’s Playhouse, he had shared with other musicians a very personal sense of time, approach to harmony, and understanding of what the music could be. Though his own style was never like that of the bop pioneers, his ideas permeated their playing, and on that basis he can reasonably be said to have directly or indirectly affected every jazz musician who has played since. Nevertheless, at the end of the 1940s, despite recognition by many of his peers, Monk was still relatively obscure as a cultural figure. The Blue Note recordings were his first as a leader, he had been almost completely ignored by the jazz press, and it looked as though he might never be known as widely as his contemporaries Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. A decade and a half later, Monk had recorded numerous albums on four labels, the last of which, Columbia, was a major recording company with the budget, economic networks, and will to mass market his music in the United States and abroad. Still, he was a controversial figure. Though he was the . . .

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