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Thelonious Monk was born on October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. When he was just four, his parents, Barbara and Thelonious, Sr., moved to New York City, where he would spend the next five decades of his life. Thelonious Monk grew up in New York, started playing piano when he was around five, and had his first job touring as an accompanist to an evangelist. Monk started learning classical piano when he was eleven but had already shown some aptitude for the instrument. Monk was thirteen when he had won the weekly amateur competition at the Apollo Theater. He won so many times that the management banned him from re-entering the contest. One of his inspirations were his neighbor, James P. Johnson, who was a harlem stride pianist. At age seventeen, Monk dropped out of the Stuyvesant High School to pursue his music career.
He toured with the Texas Warhorse, an evangelist and faith healer, before assembling a quartet of his own. Through the 1940-1953, Thelonious played in a band at Minton’s Playhouse. He worked with Lucky Millinder for some time in 1942 and was with the Cootie Williams Orchestra briefly in 1944. Williams recorded Monk’s “Epistrophy” in 1942 and in 1944 was the first to record Round Midnight. But, it was when he became Coleman Hawkins’ regular pianist that Monk was initially noticed.
In 1947, Monk married Nellie Smith, his longtime sweetheart. They later had two children, whom they named after his parents, Thelonious and Barbara. In 1952, Monk signed a contract with Prestige Records, which yielded pieces like “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “Bags’ Groove”. The latter, which he recorded with Miles Davis in 1954, is sometimes said to be his greatest piano solo ever. In 1955, he signed with Riverside and producer Orrin Keep news convinces him to record an album of Duke Ellington tunes. Monk turned a page with his 1956 album, Brilliant Corners, which is usually considered to be his first true masterpiece. In 1957, the Thelonious Monk Quartet, which included John Coltrane, began performing regularly at the Five Spot in New York. By 1962, Monk was so popular that he was given a contract with Columbia Records, a decidedly more mainstream label than Riverside. In 1964, Monk became one of four jazz musicians ever to grace the cover of Time Magazine. He played with the Giants of Jazz during 1971-1972, but then in 1973 suddenly retired. Monk was suffering from mental illness and, other than a few special appearances during the mid-70s. He lived the rest of his life in seclusion or private. He passed away from a stroke in 1982. He has since been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry, and featured on a United States postage stamp. One of Thelonious’ famous quotes were “The piano ain’t got no wrong notes!”. He would be 100 years today.
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