Born Thelonious Sphere Monk, Jr., 0ctober 10, 1917, in Rocky Mount, NC; died of a stroke, February 17, 1982, in Weehawken, NJ; son of Thelonious and Barbara Monk; wife's name, Nellie; children: Thelonious, Jr., and a daughter, nicknamed Boo. Began playing piano at age 11; toured with traveling evangelist's show during the 1930's; became house pianist at Minton's Club in New York City, c. 1940; played with various bands in New York until 1944; led small groups until 1959; formed big band, 1959; led quartet, 1960s; toured internationally, 1971-72; made last appearance at Carnegie Hall, March, 1976.

When Thelonious Monk began performing his music in the early 1940s, only a small circle of New York's brightest jazz musicians could appreciate its uniqueness. His melodies were angular, his harmonies full of jarring clusters, and he used both notes and the absence of notes in unexpected ways. He flattened his fingers when he played the piano and used his elbows from time to time to get the sound he wanted. Critics and peers took these as signs of incompetency, treating his music with "puzzled dismissal as deliberately eccentric," Jazz Journal noted. "To them, Monk apparently had ideas, but it took fleshier players like pianist Bud Powell to execute them properly." The debate over his talent and skill continued as the years passed, but Monk eventually earned a strong following. By the time of his death in 1982, he was widely acknowledged as a founding father of modern jazz.

The New York Post once called Monk "one of jazz's great eccentrics." During concerts and recording sessions he would rise from his bench every so often and lunge into a dance, emphasizing the rhythm he wanted from his band members with his 200-pound frame. With his strange hats, bamboo-framed sunglasses, and goatee, he became an obvious subject for Sunday supplement caricatures. There was also the way he talked: He and his peers were known for popularizing such expressions as "groovy," "you dig, man," and "cool, baby." Most Americans, however, first heard of Monk in the early 1950s when he was arrested for allegedly possessing drugs--for Monk, one of several instances of legal harassment that would create severe obstacles to his work.

Thelonious Sphere Monk was born on October 10, 1917, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. The first music he heard was from a player piano that his family owned. At the age of five or six he began picking out melodies on the piano and taught himself to read music by looking over his sister's shoulder as she took lessons. About a year later the family moved to New York City. Monk's father became ill soon afterward and returned to the South, leaving the boy's mother to raise him and his brother and sister by herself. She actively encouraged her young son's interest in music. Though the family budget was tight, Monk's mother managed to buy a baby grand Steinway; when Monk turned 11 she began paying for weekly lessons. Even at that age it was clear that the instrument was part of his destiny. "If anybody sat down and played the piano," Monk recalled in Crescendo International, "I would just stand there and watch 'em all the time."

As a boy Monk received rigorous gospel training, accompanying the Baptist choir in which his mother sang and playing piano and organ during church services. At the same time, he was becoming initiated into the world of jazz; near his home were several jazz clubs as well as the home of the great Harlem stride pianist James P. Johnson, from whom Monk learned a great deal. By age l3 he was playing in a local bar and grill with a trio. A year later he began playing at "rent" parties--thrown to raise money for rent--which meant holding his own among pianists who would each perform marathon displays of virtuosity. Monk gained further distinction at the Apollo Theater's famous weekly amateur contests, which he won so often that he was banned from the event. At 16 he left school to travel with an evangelical faith healer and preacher for a year-long tour that indoctrinated him into the subtleties of rhythm and blues accompaniment.

Upon returning to New York, Monk began playing non-union jobs. In 1939 he put his first group together. An important gig came in the early 1940s, when Monk was hired as house pianist at a club called Minton's. It was a time of dramatic innovation in jazz. Swing, the music of older jazzmen, had become inadequate for postwar society. In its place, a faster, more complex style was developing. The practitioners of this new music, called bebop, created it virtually on the spot, "in jam sessions and discussions that stretched past the far side of midnight," Keyboard explained. "According to jazz folklore, this activity centered on Minton's, and as the house pianist there, Monk was at the eye of what would become the bebop hurricane."

Yet while Monk was pivotal in inspiring bebop, his own music had few ties to any particular movement. Monk was an undisputed and independent original, and the proof was in his compositions. "More than anyone else in the Minton's crowd, Monk showed a knack for writing," Keyboard remarked. "Years before his piano work would be taken seriously, he would be known for his composing. In fact, most of the classic Monk tunes, such as 'Blue Monk,' 'Epistrophy,' and ''Round Midnight,' were written during his gig at Minton's or before 1951."

As the 1940s progressed and bebop became more and more the rage, Monk's career declined. In 1951 he was arrested with Bud Powell on a questionable charge of narcotics possession. Not only was he confined for 60 days in prison, but the New York State Liquor Authority rescinded his cabaret card, without which he could not play local club dates. For several years he survived only with the help of his good friend and patron the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter.

By the mid-1950s, though, Monk's fortune took a turn for the better. In 1954 he gave a series of concerts in Paris and cut his first solo album, Pure Monk (now out of print). A year later he began recording for the Riverside label. His following grew, and as Keyboard reported, his mystique grew as well. "Program notes for the Berkshire Music Barn Jazz Concert in 1955 read, 'Monk is the Greto Garbo of jazz, and his appearance at any piano is regarded as a major event by serious followers of jazz.'" In 1957 Monk opened an engagement at New York's Five Spot, leading a powerful quartet with then-jazz newcomer John Coltrane on saxophone. The eight-month gig was pivotal for Monk, who "found himself at the center of a cult," according to Keyboard. "Audiences lined up to see his unpredictable performances, his quirky, quietly ecstatic dances during horn solos, his wanderings through the room." Several masterful discs he recorded for Riverside in the late 1950s--Brilliant Corners, Thelonious Himself, and Monk with Coltrane-- increased his notoriety, rendering him "the most acclaimed and controversial jazz improviser of the late 1950s almost overnight." It didn't either hurt that both Coltrane and saxophonist Sonny Rollins were acknowledging him as their guru.

The strange behavior that Monk displayed in public sometimes got him into trouble. A New York Times review of the 1989 Monk documentary Straight, No Chaser commented on his temperament, revealing that the great pianist was "acutely sensitive and moody and perhaps a manic-depressive.... Illness eventually made it impossible for him to perform." In 1958 he was arrested for disturbing the peace and his cabaret license was revoked a second time. Forced to take out-of-town gigs, he was separated from his two main sources of stability--New York City and his wife Nellie--and his eccentricities thus intensified. During one episode in 1959 in Boston, state police picked him up and took him to the Grafton State Hospital, where he was held for a week. Around 1960 his cabaret club card was restored and he returned to playing New York clubs. Now when he played a gig his wife accompanied him.

Toward the end of the 1950s Monk began to receive the prestige he had long deserved. His late fifties recordings on Riverside fared so well that in 1962 he was offered a contract from Columbia. As a performer he was equally successful, commanding $2,000 for week-long engagements with his band and $1,000 for single performances. In 1964 Monk appeared on the cover of Time magazine--an extremely rare honor for a jazz artist.

In the early 1970s, Monk made some solo and trio recordings for Black Lion in London and played a few concerts. But, beginning in the mid-1970s he isolated himself from his friends and colleagues, spending his final years at the home of the Baroness de Koenigswarter in Weehawken, New Jersey. After playing a concert at Carnegie Hall in March of 1976, Monk was too weak physically to make further appearances. He died on February 17, 1982, after suffering a massive stroke.

There was "a Monk fever in the jazz world" for at least two years before the pianist's death, observed Village Voice contributor Stanley Crouch. But, as record producer Orrin Keepnews observed in Keyboard, performing Monk's music is no easy feat. His "material can be basically divided into two categories: difficult and impossible." Monk's eccentric piano technique also raised eyebrows among music critics. Concerning those who criticized his technique, Monk told Crescendo International, "I guess these people are surprised when they hear certain things that I've done on records. They must feel awful silly about saying I don't have no technique. Because I know you've heard me make some fast runs. You can dig how stupid the statement is."

Looking back on his career, Monk told Crescendo International, "As for the hard times I've had--I've never been jealous of any musician, or anything. Musicians and other people have told lies on me, sure, and it has kept me from jobs for awhile.... But it didn't bother me. I kept on making it--recording and doing what I'm doing, and thinking. While they were talking I was thinking music and still trying to play."

by Kyle Kevorkian

Thelonious Monk's Career

Thelonious Monk's Awards

Down Beat critics poll 1958 and 1959; honored with special tribute at President Jimmy Carter's 1978 White House jazz party.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

September 30, 2004: Monk was inducted into the inaugural class of Lincoln Center's Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame. Source: "Jazz At Lincoln Center To Induct Inaugural Class of Musicians into The Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame" (Press Release), September 30, 2004.

April 2005: Newly discovered tapes at the Library of Congress include a rare live recording of a Carnegie Hall benefit concert dated November 29, 1957, featuring Monk in a quartet with John Coltrane, Shadow Wilson, and Ahmed Abdul-Malik. Source: New York Times,, April 25, 2005.

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 15 years ago

we miss you monk

over 15 years ago

Thank you Monk.