Thelonious Sphere Monk 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. The first musical sounds he heard were 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 the San Juan Hill section of New York City, near the Hudson River. His father became ill soon afterward and returned to the South, leaving Thelonious’s mother, Barbara, to raise him and his brother and sister. Though the family budget was tight, she managed to buy a baby grand Steinway piano, and when Thelonious turned eleven she began paying for his weekly piano lessons. Even at that young age it was clear that the instrument was part of his destiny.
As a boy Monk received training in the gospel music style, 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 picked up a great deal. By the age of thirteen he was playing in a local bar and grill with a trio. At the Apollo Theater’s famous weekly amateur music contests, Monk won so many times that he was eventually banned from the event.
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 1970s Monk made a few solo and trio recordings for Black Lion in London and played a few concerts at at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Newport Jazz Festival.
Beginning in the mid-1970s he isolated himself from his friends and colleagues, spending his final years at the home of the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter in Weehawken, New Jersey. After playing a concert at Carnegie Hall in March 1976, Monk was too weak physically to make further appearances. He died on February 17, 1982, in Englewood Hospital, after suffering a massive stroke.
Along with Miles Davis (1926–1991) and John Coltrane (1926–1967), Monk is remembered as one of the most influential figures in modern jazz. The music Monk left behind remains as some of the most innovative and unique material in all of music, jazz or otherwise.