Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917-1982) is recognized as one of the most influential figures in the history of jazz. He was one of the architects of bebop and his impact as a composer and pianist has had a profound influence on every genre of music.
Monk was born on October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, but his parents, Barbara Batts and Thelonious Monk, soon moved the family to New York City. Monk began piano lessons as a young child and by the age of 13 he had won the weekly amateur contest at the Apollo Theater so many times that he was barred from entering. At the age of 19, Monk joined the house band at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, where along with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and a handful of other players, he developed the style of jazz that came to be known as bebop. Monk’s compositions, among them “Round Midnight,” were the canvasses upon which these legendary soloists expressed their musical ideas.
In 1947, Monk made his first recordings as a leader for Blue Note. These albums are some of the earliest documents of his unique compositional and improvisational style, both of which employed unusual repetition of phrases, an offbeat use of space, and joyfully dissonant sounds. That same year, he married his longtime love Nellie Smith and they later had two children, Thelonious, Jr. and Barbara (1954-1984). In the decade that followed, Monk played on recordings with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Sonny Rollins and recorded as a leader for Prestige Records and later for Riverside Records. Brilliant Corners and Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane were two of the albums from this period that brought Monk international attention as a pianist and composer.
In 1957, the Thelonious Monk Quartet, which included John Coltrane, began a regular gig at the Five Spot. The group’s performances were hugely successful and received the highest critical praise. Over the next few years, Monk toured the United States and Europe and made some of his most influential recordings. In 1964, Monk appeared on the cover of Time magazine, an honor that has been bestowed on only three other jazz musicians. By this time, Monk was a favorite at jazz festivals around the world, where he performed with his quartet, which included longtime associate Charlie Rouse. In the early ’70s, he discontinued touring and recording and appeared only on rare occasions at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Newport Jazz Festival.
Thelonious Sphere Monk passed away on February 17, 1982. His more than 70 compositions are classics that continue to inspire artists in all genres of music. During his lifetime, Monk received numerous awards and he continues to be honored posthumously. The Smithsonian Institution has immortalized Monk’s work with an archive of his music. In addition, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor. A feature documentary on Monk’s life, Straight, No Chaser, was released to critical acclaim. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz was founded to honor Monk by preserving the music to which he dedicated his life. Monk’s integrity, originality, and unique approach set a standard that is a shining example for all who strive for musical excellence.