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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Monk: The Birth of Be Bop

I've been spending some time recently reading about and listening to the music of Thelonious Monk.  Monk was a jazz innovator in the US during the late 1940's and 50's.

I had never heard of him until a few years ago when I watched some sort of black and white movie on his life (probably "Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser" 1988).  Recently I have been reading "Thelonious Monk - The Life and Times of an American Original" by Robin D. G. Kelley.

The movie is very dark and unusual - I suppose because it contains a lot of late 1950's and 60's black and white footage.

What stood out I my mind was Monk's music.

I have always had an interest in jazz - though being uneducated in music I never knew "what" it was - only what I liked.  Until I saw this movies I would have to say the most of my musical interest in jazz revolved around people like Bill Evans.

Now most jazz is about harmonization and many people don't like it because of this.  Typically modern and popular songs revolve around a melody - people like melodies because they are easy to remember (who can't recall the melody of, for example, Judy Garland's "Somewhere (Over the Rainbow)").

Popular music is often very simple in terms of structure as well - many successful song writers, like Johnny Cash, using only a few chords to create memorable songs such as "I Walk the Line."

Jazz, however, is different.

Certainly it has melody and rhythm - but how its played is much different.

In Jazz the point of the playing is harmonization (think barber shop quartet).  While someone might be playing the melody other instruments are adding harmony to that sound.  The "point," if you will, being that the melody and song are enhanced by the skill of those adding the harmony.

Jazz also involves improvisation.  Improvisation is playing some parts of the song uniquely while still retaining, for example, the melody.  Unique elements can include extending the melody, harmonization, adding chords based on the melody, and so on.

While Monk is a jazz musician his ideas about harmony are extremely interesting (of course, I am no jazz expert).

Monk creates music based on what are called dissonant harmonies - harmonies that, at least a first blush, sound wrong or out of place.  His genius, of course, is doing this in such a way that the songs are still wonderful songs.

Monk was also a pianist and played a lot of unusual sounding piano for this songs.

This style today is collectively called "be bop."

To my ear his best recordings are his earliest done for "Blue Note."

For some reason today Monk has been lost to time - at least outside the jazz world.

New York, where Monk lived and played, produced a great number of popular musicians at the time: Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Fats Navarro, and Dizzie Gillespie - just to name a very, very few.

Like all "creative geniuses" Monk was thought to suffer from some form of bipolar disorder - though at least in Kelley's book I find this disingenuous.  (I am tired of reading about "stayed up for days" and "worked through the night" and so on as "mental illness.  Perhaps instead "mental illness" is living a life so boring and free of passion that you have no need to do those things.)

I am still reading the book so I am sure the "mental illness" aspect will be played up at the end.

Both Thelonious and his wife Nellie had the benefit of on the of the greatest (if not the greatest) patron of jazz in the US:  Baroness Pannonica (Nica) de Koenigswarter (1913 - 1988).

Nica was a Rothschild (of the famed Rothschild dynasty) and discovered US jazz in the early 1950's.  Before this she was a pilot and fought the Nazi's in France as part of the resistance.  She spent much of her life promoting jazz and supporting jazz musicians including Monk.

(And no, they were never romantically linked.)

As a patron she literally drove musicians to gigs in her Bentley, helped pay the rent, and much else including living under the threat of three years in prison for "taking the fall" for a musician friend over $10 worth of marijuana she declared as her own when pulled over by the police (she was ultimately let off).

A few of Monk's recorded performances below (many more are on YouTube):

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