Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

"Nice Work If You Can Get It": Thelonious Monk and Popular Song

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

"Nice Work If You Can Get It": Thelonious Monk and Popular Song

Article excerpt

Thelonious Monk is primarily celebrated as a composer, the creator of a unique body of music that counts as one of the cornerstones of modern jazz. When we think of him as an improviser, it is primarily in the context of his own compositions. As Whitney Balliett (1991, 37) once put it, "His improvisations were molten Monk compositions, and his compositions were frozen Monk improvisations." Yet over the years, Monk made numerous recordings of Tin Pan Alley songs, some in small-group settings and others as solo pianist. It may seem odd to single out these performances for special attention because playing popular songs, or "standards," was the basic procedure for a jazz musician of Monk's generation. But these are genuinely odd performances in any case--especially those for solo piano in the stride tradition, which lack the extroversion or virtuosic bravado of that idiom. Some of these performances are curiously out of tempo, as if Monk were fumbling at the keyboard or giving the unfolding of each chord an uncommon weight. Others seem stiffly and mechanically in tempo. Passages that are unnervingly banal are juxtaposed with the most unsettling and inexplicable dissonance. Even stranger, they often sound less like improvisations than faithful, if idiosyncratic, renderings of the songs.

The pop songs that Monk recorded throughout his career were not contemporary, but tunes of a certain vintage. As shown in the appendix, none was composed later than 1945. The majority were originally published in the late 1920s and early 1930s, making them already "standards" by the time that Monk (who was born in 1917) would have first heard them. To be sure, some of the choices are hardly surprising. Tunes such as Fats Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose" or George Gershwin's "Liza" (both from 1929) had long ago been absorbed into the repertory of virtually every gigging jazz musician. More often than not, Monk performed this kind of song with his quartet, trading solos with his saxophonist. But other selections--the ones for solo piano-often seem pointedly archaic. By the late 1950s and well into the 1960s, solo versions of such chestnuts as "Just a Gigolo," "Memories of You," and "(I Love You) Sweetheart of All My Dreams" had become a regular adjunct to his usual stock of original compositions as played by his quartet. When performed (as they often were) as the opening number of a nightclub set, they were triply set apart: as solo piano pieces, as popular songs, and as a repertory that referred several decades into the past.

The application of Monkian dissonance to tunes such as "Lulu's Back in Town" is usually construed as a kind of irreverent nostalgia or cheerful parody, the eccentric humor of an artist who, like the cubist collagists, enjoyed deploying discarded scraps of popular culture in the service of a modernist aesthetic. "There's Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie" was apparently just such a "found object." According to Keepnews (1988, 141), Monk had stumbled across the tune in an old songbook shortly before his "outrageous interpretation" of it on a 1959 recording session. Even songs that were presumably well known to him are treated with a broad, campy humor that is immediately enjoyable. His 1956 version of "Tea for Two" for Riverside is a good example: the familiar melody, verging on triteness, is retrofitted with a bizarre harmonic scheme in which the circle-of-fifths movement of the original seems to have come unhinged.

But as so often with Monk, parody and eccentricity act as a mask concealing deeper levels of meaning. Among other things, one can view these performances as an avenue into Monk's musical autobiography. The repertory, after all, points to a crucial and otherwise largely hidden phase of Monk's creative life: the decade before 1947, when recordings for the Blue Note label first introduced his music to the general public. We know that, from 1940 to about 1943, he worked as house pianist for jam sessions at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. …

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