Monk at 90, Monk Forever

Thelonious Sphere Monk (Oct. 10, 1917 – Feb. 17, 1982) should be celebrated today on the occasion of his 90th birthday, and always for the indestructible resonance of his compositions, pianism and performance style. He is an authentic icon of the American alternative, the possibility of us each becoming, and making sense of, who we uniquely are.
It’s easy to hear Monk’s influence in present day jazz — as easy as listening to a parade of 18 jazz and classical keyboardists in 10-15 minute increments from 5 p.m. to 9:15 this evening (Oct. 10) at the Fazioli Piano Marathon in the Winter Garden of World Financial Center in downtown Manhattan, admission free. They’ll lack the touch of the man himself — but then, he is inimitable. Check out his juggling act with cigarette, handkerchief, fragmented melody and flowing counterpart on “Round Midnight”, co-credited to Cootie Williams and Bernie Hanighen, but one of Monk’s signature songs.

Once you really hear Monk, you’ll remember him. His idiosyncratic melodies and brilliantly insightful harmonies easily enter the ear, then slip beneath consciousness to affect one’s stance, breathing and pace, maybe speech patterns and thought. He is a link between Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and Cecil Taylor, and by only slightly extended comparison, the distilled amalgam of Bach and Webern. His music is simultaneously as elemental and inevitable as the earth, and strikingly original, truly individualistic, expressive beyond conventions of jazz (or any other) tradition. His songs and improvisations are funny, strange, upbeat, arduous, murky, driven and driving and ceaseless in their flow. He was not prolix — his music always unfolds with logic, by plan. Yet that plan was devised by Monk alone, and is understood by us only thanks to his gift of it to the audience, the public, the world.
Monk’s impact on other forms of music and art than jazz is not obvious, but it’s bound to exist. No music so instantly recognizable, full of indestructible integrity, rewarding to the musicians who try it and entertaining to listeners, too, exists in a bubble. Monk’s music (title of one of my favorite of his albums, featuring tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane and a reverent yet prototypically Monkish rendition of “Abide With Me”) has lots to teach us, about independence and interdependence, the tones between tones, how wrong can be right and the virtues of ugly beauty.
At the World Financial Center, the following keyboard artists will play, in this scheduled order: Aaron Goldberg, Rachel Z, Helio Alves, Deidre Rodman, Frank Kimbrough, Natalia Kazaryan, Rodney Kendrick, Luis Perdomo, Juan Jose Chuquisengo, Aaron Diehl, Ran Jia, Randy Weston, Martha Marchena, Fred Hersch, Cedar Walton, Joel Fan, Geri Allen and Dan Tepfer. Great idea — pianists, and players of other instruments, too, should do this around the world. Frequently. Perhaps in the future they will.

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