Zurke And Monk: A Discovery

Researching Thelonious Monk’s inspirations and examples, the Canadian composer and musicologist Andrew Homzy has turned up a connection that may seem unlikely—until you hear the evidence.

“It has been well documented,” Homzy wrote a group of fellow jazz researchers yesterday, “that Monk was inspired by Mary Lou William’s ‘Walkin’ And Swingin’’ (‘Rhythm-a-ning’) and John Kirby’s ‘Pastel Blue’ (‘Blue Monk’). 

This morning, I discovered that Bob Zurke’s performance of ‘Tea For Two’, with the Bob Crosby Band in 1938, is the genesis of Monk’s still-unique version of the same tune. Recorded in New York, March 10, 1938 for Decca.

Zurke’s spectacular reharmonization begins at 2:39.”

Notes: (1) Eddie Miller has the lovely tenor saxophone solo in the Zurke/Crosby version. Cannonball Adderley called Miller “The first of the cool tenors.” (2) At the end of the Zurke/Crosby version, and before the Monk, Adrian Gregg, the man who restored the sound of the Decca 78rpm disc, pops up to deliver a brief plug—DR.

Monk’s version is from his 1963 Criss Cross album.

Bob Zurke (1912-1944) was a gifted pianist who replaced Joe Sullivan in Bob Crosby’s band in 1937. He and Crosby had a hit record with their cover of Meade Lux Lewis’s “Honky Tonk Train Blues.” After he left Crosby, Zurke formed his own big band in 1940. He recorded, among other things, a new version of “Tea for Two,” of which Andrew Homzy says, “At 2:17, there begins an even more extensive, i.e. full chorus, reharmonization. Monk could have heard this version, as it was issued on Victor & was probably widely distributed.” Zurke’s 1940 “Tea for Two” is on this album, along with all of his other RCA Victors.

Zurke’s big band, Bob Zurke and his Delta Rhythm Boys, didn’t last long, largely because of the leader’s drinking and unreliability. After settling in Los Angeles, he spent his final few years playing solo piano at the Hangover Club. He collapsed there in early 1944 and died shortly after of pneumonia with complications. He had just turned 32.

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  1. says

    Yeah, that’s another great discovery!

    Thanks for hinting us to it, Doug.

    Monk was certainly an avid radio listener, and considering his big ears & composing genius, it’s not further astonishing that he reflected his influences with his playing, composing & performing.

    I would even see Monk’s quotes and interpretations/ compositions as his personal tributes to the great jazz people like Mary Lou Williams who were there before him.

    Beside the mentioned “Walkin’ And Swinging” & “Pastel Blue”, there are at least two other big band pieces, where I can hear clear references in Monk’s work: I’m Free (What’s New), recorded also by Bob Crosby & His Orchestra, featuring trumpeter Billy Butterfield in 1938, and Feeling Like A Dream by Larry Clinton in 1937.

    “Bemsha Swing’s” (also in C-Major!) first harmonic sequence does have its roots in the first, and “Well You Needn’t” in the latter.

    I have dug up my own little theory from 2005 on the genesis of “Blue Monk” and posted it at my blog. There was – at least in my tale – yet another tune involved which would also explain Thelonious Monk’s dancing on stage.

  2. says


    It was exactly 30 years ago that Thelonious Sphere Monk (October 10, 1917 – February 17, 1982) left our planet.


    I think this is the most fitting memorial.

    Steve Lacy, soprano sax
    Mal Waldron, piano
    Buell Neidlinger, bass
    Elvin Jones, drums

  3. Andrew Dowd says

    Speaking of Monk, last Saturday night during my weekly show on KMHD in Portland Oregon I played “Little Rootie Tootie” by Monk, a 1952 recording for Prestige. I try to play Monk on my show at least every two weeks. An elderly woman (a regular caller to my show) called me and asked me why anyone would ever play Monk on the radio. The woman who called me is a pianist and proudly said that she has perfect pitch. She was obviously referring to the prominent dissonance in “Little Rootie Tootie”. I tried my best to explain that although Monk was at first viewed as “far out” that he is now largely viewed as a musical genius, and that he has legendary status in the history of jazz. The caller said that she just didn’t get it and once again asked why anyone would ever listen to Monk. I guess this just proves that fingernails-on-a-blackboard to one person is a soothing music to another. Can anyone else out there suggest a better way for me to respond to comments like this?

  4. says

    Hi there, Andrew —

    First of all let me tell you: “Perfect pitch” is not necessarily a sign of musicality. — Next time someone comes up with such prejudices, tell her that “Little Rootie Tootie” was dedicated to Monk’s son and his toy train. You can even hear the whistle blow.

    Tell her that Monk wrote “Brilliant Corners” (one of the most difficult of Monk’s tunes) right after the new cleaning woman’s visit to Monk’s place.

    Many of Monk’s titles were created because there were no titles at all, even when they had been well rehearsed and ready for a first recording: “Think Of One”, “Who Knows”, or “Ask Me Now” are the most striking examples here.

    “Straight, No Chaser” has two meanings: #1 would be straight whiskey without beer or water afterward; #2: Don’t play it too fast, play it straight, in a medium pace.

    Monk’s piano playing is actually very skillful, and technically quite demanding. His re-harmonizations of old standards, show tunes or saloon songs like “The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea”, “Honeysuckle Rose”, “Tea For Two”, “Lulu’s Back In Town”, or – one of the most interesting – of his beautiful rendition of “Body And Soul.” They all didn’t just fall into his lap.

    Those interpretations are the results of playing the pieces for hours and hours, breaking their chord structures up and down to their essences, flipping them over, and over again, and back, and forth, and possibly sideways, and by improvising on them night after night at Minton’s and other “after hours joints”.

    You can be sure that those whole-tone scales from the top to the bottom of the keyboard required a lot of concentrated practicing. Monk’s talent was the gift, the rest was hard work, and his stubbornness made him immune to current fashions and hypes.

    Thelonious Sphere Monk was a unique musician, and a true, unspoiled, yet humorous individual. Here are some notes, taken by one of his former students who became a master himself, feel free to read Monk’s Advice that he gave to Steve Lacy.

  5. David says

    “Pastel Blue” was written by Kirby’s trumpet man, Charlie Shavers, in collaboration with Artie Shaw, who also recorded it in the same period (’38-’39.) Shavers’ best known tune was “Undecided.” Henry Mancini used a bit of Shavers’ “Dawn on the Desert” in his soundtrack for “Charade” (in a string quartet number called “Bye Bye Charlie”.) It should be noted that the borrowed phrases from both of these, and from “Walkin’ and Swingin’,” are fairly elemental riffs that could have been arrived at independently.