Together with his contemporaries, Thelonious Monk rewrote the book on modern jazz and his name is associated with some of the most original and challenging music of the 20th century.
Monk grew up in Manhattan in the ’20s and ’30s, and started playing the piano at the age of six, honing his craft as a teenager playing the organ in church. He was strongly influenced by the great stride piano players of the day, such as James P. Johnson, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington.
Monk loved stride piano because he said it allowed him to express his sense of humour, declaring that “Part of what I want to do is make you laugh, make you think differently”.
During the ’40s, Monk was dubbed ‘The High Priest of Bop’, and along with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker he led a generation of musicians through the bebop era.
By the end of the decade he was recording for the legendary Blue Note label.
However, Monk’s music was often regarded as too ‘difficult’ for mainstream audiences, and it wasn’t until 1956, with his album, Brilliant Corners that Monk found widespread acclaim and commercial success. Pretty odd, considering that the title track of the record was so hard to play that it was created from multiple takes!
At 6 foot 3 inches tall, Monk was visually very striking, with a unique sense of style. He usually wore distinctive hats, as captured on the front cover of Time magazine in 1964 – one of only five jazz artists ever to be featured.
100 years after his birth, Monk is still recognised as one of the greatest pianists and jazz composers of all time.
His musical legacy lives on in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, which offers jazz education programs for schools around the globe, and even helped to establish April 30th as International Jazz Day.