55. Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk was a jazz pianist and composer from Manhattan, New York City. Born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Monk moved with his family to New York when he was four years old. As a young man, he studied music theory at the Julliard School of Music. In the early forties, he was a regular fixture of late night jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse, where the advanced, mathematical style of jazz known as be-bop was born. Monk authored several of jazz’s best loved and most unusual melodies. In 1993, he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2006, a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation.


Thelonious Monk (1917-1982), piano

monkzone.com – Thelonious Monk Official Website
“The Thelonious Monk Website”, Another Good Reference

A Few Notable Collaborators:

Kenny Clarke (1914-1985), drums
John “Dizzy” Gillespie (1917-1993), trumpet
Charlie Parker (1920-1955), alto saxophone
Charlie Christian (1916-1942), electric guitar
Art Blakey (1919-1990), drums
Milt Jackson (1923-1999), vibraphone
Percy Heath (1923-2005), bass
Oscar Pettiford (1922-1960), double bass
Max Roach (1924-2007), drums

“The idea of spontaneity is part of jazz, and Thelonious Monk played piano as if he’d never seen one before.”

–Geoff Dyer

“Monk sounded like no one else. He was a deliberately percussive player. One of the important musicians from the in-group of the bop creators, his influence was realized only from the second half of the fifties on. He had hardly finished contributing to the invention of bop when he turned away from it to create something completely new. Monk “Africanized” the piano — the quintessentially European instrument — by playing it percussively, with a hard-edged attack. Monk played “al-fresco like,” widely spaced, often barely indicated lines. In terms of the dissolution of the phrase as a unit and harmony as a functional system, he went further than almost anyone before free jazz. His playing, as innovative as it appeared, was nonetheless deeply rooted in jazz tradition, as became particularly clear when he included elements of stride piano playing in his playing, as if to deconstruct it. Monk’s own themes, with their rhythmic displacements and irregular structures, are among the most original themes in modern jazz.”

— Joachim-Ernst Berendt, Günther Huesmann, “The Jazz Book”

Amazon.com Link to “The Jazz Book, From Ragtime to the 21st Century”

The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, by Richard Cook and Brian Morton, gives the following Thelonious Monk albums the highest recommendations:

The Complete Blue Note Recordings
Brilliant Corners
With John Coltrane At Carnegie Hall
The Complete Riverside Recordings
Monk Alone

For casual jazz fans, “Genius Of Modern Music: Volumes 1 & 2”, or “The Best Of Thelonious Monk: The Blue Note Years” will suffice as a substitute for The Complete Blue Note Recordings.

For a casual music listener, Monk’s music can sound strange. The choice of notes is often unexpected, sometimes dissonant, but there’s always this sense of consistent, mathematical correctness, a curious logic behind the choices. It’s no coincidence his compositions are still admired and played. His best-known composition, “‘Round Midnight”, is the most recorded composition in jazz history.

These Are Really Starting To Sound Good!

There’s no way I would have understood Thelonious Monk’s music as a young man; it would have been too foreign and too challenging for me to appreciate. That’s no longer true. The chosen list of songs represents a sampling of his compositions, plus a few interpretations of jazz standards, essential to understanding his approach. There are both solo efforts and ensemble pieces. There are two versions of “Ruby, My Dear”, one with John Coltrane and one with Coleman Hawkins on tenor saxophone. Two versions of “‘Round Midnight” are presented, one solo and one with a small combo.

Monk recorded his best compositions multiple times. Here are my choices by album:

Complete Blue Note Recordings:

Off Minor
In Walked Bud
Straight, No Chaser
‘Round Midnight

Thelonious Himself:

April In Paris
(I Don’t Stand) A Ghost Of A Chance With You
I’m Getting Sentimental Over You
‘Round Midnight

Monk’s Music:

Ruby, My Dear (Alt)
Abide With Me
Crepuscule With Nellie

Brilliant Corners:

I Surrender Dear
Bemsha Swing

Criss Cross:

Criss Cross

Ken Burns Jazz: Thelonious Monk:
Well You Needn’t
Blue Monk
Off Minor (Live)
Nice Work If You Can Get It

Solo Monk:


The final video shows Monk rehearsing “Ugly Beauty”. It is fascinating watching him. You can see his mind working, determining which notes go next. Watching the man interact with others is also instructive; explaining what he wants appears wearying. Much like Charlie Parker, Monk is a math whiz operating deep within his realm of sound.

Thelonious Monk Songs:

‘Round Midnight, Thelonious Monk ✭✭✭✭

‘Round Midnight (Solo), Thelonious Monk ✭✭✭
Ruby, My Dear, Thelonious Monk ✭✭✭
Ruby, My Dear (Alt), Thelonious Monk ✭✭✭
Rhythm-A-Ning, Thelonious Monk ✭✭✭
Blue Monk, Thelonious Monk ✭✭✭
Straight, No Chaser, Thelonious Monk ✭✭✭
Bemsha Swing, Thelonious Monk ✭✭✭
Misterioso, Thelonious Monk ✭✭✭
Dinah, Thelonious Monk ✭✭✭

Off Minor, Thelonious Monk ✭✭
Off Minor (Live), Thelonious Monk ✭✭
In Walked Bud, Thelonious Monk ✭✭
Pannonica, Thelonious Monk ✭✭
I Surrender Dear, Thelonious Monk ✭✭
Well You Needn’t, Thelonious Monk ✭✭
Epistrophy, Thelonious Monk ✭✭
Criss Cross, Thelonious Monk ✭✭
Hackensack, Thelonious Monk ✭✭
Nice Work If You Can Get It, Thelonious Monk ✭✭
Crepuscule With Nellie, Thelonious Monk ✭✭
Abide With Me, Thelonious Monk ✭✭
April In Paris, Thelonious Monk ✭✭
(I Don’t Stand) A Ghost Of A Chance With You, Thelonious Monk ✭✭
I’m Getting Sentimental Over You, Thelonious Monk ✭✭
It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), Thelonious Monk ✭✭
Sweet And Lovely, Thelonious Monk ✭✭

Related Songs:

April In Paris, Count Basie & His Orchestra
April In Paris, Charlie Parker ✭✭

I’m Getting Sentimental Over You, The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra ✭✭

It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), The Boswell Sisters ✭✭✭
It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), The Modern Jazz Quartet ✭✭

‘Round Midnight, Miles Davis ✭✭
‘Round Midnight, June Christy ✭✭✭

Dinah, Le Quintette Du Hot Club De France ✭✭
Dinah, Cab Calloway ✭✭✭
Dinah, Fats Waller ✭✭✭

Nice Work If You Can Get It, Mel Tormé with Marty Paich Dek-tette

I would expect cover versions of Monk’s compositions to be added in future years.

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