Much attention has been devoted to this year being the centennial of the U.S. entry into World War I. It’s a date certainly worth commemorating as American participation tipped the balance of that ghastly conflict in favor of the Allied Powers and set the stage for vast changes that shaped the remainder of the 20th century.
But 2017 is also the centennial of one of America’s most creative musicians, pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, a prime architect of the country’s most distinctive contribution to the art world.
Even overseas the London Jazz Festival is commemorating his 100th birthday with a host of concerts including two pianists who are performing all of his original compositions. “He was a completely unique composer, but with a real knowledge of everything that was happening in western music,” pianist Jonathan Gee explained to the BBC last week, listing revolutionary orchestral composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg as contemporaries whose innovations Monk absorbed.
Thelonious Monk was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina in October 1917 (and so shares the state with fellow jazz giant John Coltrane, born about 9 years later). In 1922 his family moved to New York City, then on the verge of an artistic explosion known as the Harlem Renaissance. He began playing the piano shortly after his arrival and when he was 16, dropped out of high school and went on the road playing with a traveling faith healer.
After he returned to New York, he got a job in the house band at a jazz club in Harlem called Minton’s Playhouse where a blistering new style called “Bebop” was taking shape. He was 27 when he went into the studio for the first time as a sideman and three years later made his first recordings as a composer and bandleader.
For years he was a something of a musician’s musician, but unable to gain much of a wider audience because his music had the reputation of being difficult to follow and understand. (It’s true that when you look at his sheet music you’ll see some chords you won’t see many other places.)
One of Duke Ellington’s arrangers, a pianist named Mary Lou Williams, said that like many bebop musicians, Monk’s extreme inventiveness was in part purposeful because it made it hard for other musicians to copy his style. He finally broke through to public acclaim when he signed with Columbia Records in 1962. Two years later he was on the cover of Time magazine. Monk had “arrived at the summit of serious recognition he deserved all along,” the magazine explained, and there was “hardly a jazz musician playing who is not in some way indebted to him.”
“Every day is a brand-new pharmaceutical event for Monk,” explained Time with startling frankness. “Alcohol, Dexedrine, sleeping potions, whatever is at hand, charge through his bloodstream in baffling combinations.” People who knew him described his behavior as erratic: up and wild one moment, withdrawn the next. His most recent biographer explains that his behavior was due to an undiagnosed bipolar disorder and he was hospitalized several times as his mental illness grew worse. By 1980, he had all but disappeared from the scene. He died of a stroke on Feb. 17, 1982.
It’s true that we as Americans should remember and reflect on important events like our participation in World War I. But just as certainly we should take time to commemorate those who have shaped American art and culture in revolutionary ways. Getting to know Thelonious Monk would be a good way to start.