Thelonious Monk at 100

At Thelonious Monk’s hundredth birthday, it’s our ears that have changed, not his sound.  Instead of odd angles and eccentricity we hear orchids in music, various and beautiful.  The truth of the man’s life is clearer, too: drawn back from the ragged edge to the creative center of classically American music.  

The quirky story of Thelonious Sphere Monk made a new sort of sense in Robin Kelley’ grand biography in 2009.  Monk was one of the be-bop revolutionaries, it’s always said, uptown in Manhattan in 1941, but Robin Kelley revealed him as a child of Fats Waller stride piano and all the music of 1930s Harlem and well beyond it.

He mumbled at the piano and danced around it. He showed up late sometimes, sometimes disappeared, and did time for small drug offenses. But inside Robin Kelley’s biography is an unshakably original, purposeful musician, ever a generous genius, an attentive father, son, and husband, in triumph and in trouble.

What Monk did was take the oldest, rooted tradition of the piano, in Harlem, New York, all over the country. And then he combined it with a future we have yet to achieve. It’s collapsing space and time. And his whole approach to the piano is one that brings past and present and future together in one. And he had never ever left his roots as a stride pianist — all the way to the very last tune he ever played.

Monk wrote close to a hundred songs still being interpreted and reinvented. He was musician beyond category, or genre, or period, in Kelly’s persuasive account. It’s fun to see Monk now an African-American Emersonian. His line, for instance, that “the piano ain’t got no wrong notes,” resonates with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s war on conformity and consistency. “To believe your own sound,” paraphrasing Emerson’s line in Self Reliance, “that is genius.”  

Robin D. G. Kelley in conversation with Chris Lydon, December 18, 2009

Guest List
Robin Kelley
professor of U.S. History at UCLA and author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

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  • Potter

    Oh wow!

  • Marcus Thompson, violist, BCMS

    Hi Chris,

    I enjoyed your show on Monk last night! It reminds me when I was a Juilliard student in the 1960s I had a ‘brush with greatness’ in the person of a theory and composition teacher who was one of Monk’s close collaborators: Hall Overton. He wrote a phenomenal sonata for viola and piano in the 1956 (for my teacher Walter Trampler) that I played at my Carnegie Recital Hall debut in 1968 and scores of times since. It is a piece of modern classical music, but embodies so much of Monk’s approach to playing. That photo on your site of Monk in a recording session has Hall Overton standing in the background by the door!

  • Potter

    Amen to your newsletter on this and here. I have to mention Ray Smith, he of “The Jazz Decades”, which we listened to faithfully for years. You can hear these gems somewhat reprised on WGBH website. He introduced me to those traditional jazz firsts as Willy the Lion Smith. My appreciation of Monk came later but when it did I was in new territory. Over the years listening here to ROS/Chris’ love of the idiom relating it to all else, especially what made America great, and STILL does, has only added to my own love of jazz. Here’s another plug for WICN jazz radio Worcester Ma. On here all day long. Monk no stranger.

  • AboothSF

    Captivating program today!