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Critical Analysis of Thelonius Monk

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To say songwriter Thelonius Monk was a talented jazz musician is an understatement to say the very least. The main focus of this essay is a critical analysis of one of the top jazz musicians ever, Thelonius Monk. He is said to be one of the originators of modern jazz, as well as bebop. Monk was born in the early 1900s in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Although he was born here, he was moved to New York City at a very early age and this is where he spent the majority of his life. His first go at a piano was at the tender age of 5 years old. A child prodigy of sorts. During his teenage years, he dropped out of high school and acquired a job touring as an accompanist to gospel singer. Toward the early 1940s, he joined the house band of Minton’s Playhouse, where he actively searched for his own unique sound and style. There he ended up developing the style of jazz known as bebop and eventually ended up creating the sound referred to as modern jazz. His first recorded record was made in 1944, but under a different name and it wasn’t until 1947 that he started to put his name to his own records. During the next decade or so, Monk wasn’t in the limelight and didn’t experience much exposure. He was criticized heavily due to his style of play. Monk utilized an interesting technique and people often though of him to be a lesser pianist. Also due to his unique name and the way he dressed and his appearance, it made it easier to label him negatively. During this time period of his life, he did find marry his longtime sweetheart and had children with her also. Things started to turn in his favor during the early 1950s too, as his records started to gain recognition and people started to realize his potential and more appreciate his style. He then signed with Prestige Records and his career started to soar. His 1956 album, “Brilliant Corners” was seen as his first big hit and what jump-started his rise to success. Monk eventually started to tour all across the United States and Europe with the Thelonius Monk Quartet in the 1960s. He continued to tour across the globe, but 1973, he abruptly retired from the spotlight. Towards the end of his life, he suffered from mental illness and lived his life away from the world and stayed to himself. He passed away in February of 1982 (Yanow).

The first record I’m going to analyze is the 32-bar track, ”‘Round Midnight”, which came out in 1958. This track is actually recognized by many as one of his greatest works. What’s crazy is that he recorded this song when he was only eighteen, but wasn’t able to record it due to no one being interested. It’s also known to be one of the largest recorded and performed jazz songs. The opening phrase of the song is easily distinguishable for a song such as this. The chord progression is also phenomenal for this track. In his songs, Monk usually utilized split notes, which is a pretty common jazz technique where the artist strikes the main key with a second key at the same time and quickly releasing it at the same time. After Monk’s passing, many artists did renditions of some of his most famous and known songs, and this one in particular was used the most.

The next track I chose was Thelonius Monk’s “Epistrophy”. Interesting enough, epistrophy actually isn’t a word, but an alteration of the word epistrophe, which described by Merriam-Webster dictionary, is the “repetition of a word or expression at the end of successive phrases, clauses, sentences, or verses especially for rhetorical or poetic effect” (Merriam-Webster). This track also stands out above the rest. Some refer to this as the original modern jazz track. It seems to have increased dissonance to it compared to other tracks. The main section of the song is based on a 4-bar phrase, with each separate bar having 2 chords that are dominant with a semi-tone between them. There’s kind of an up and down motion with the song as well, kind of like a rollercoaster.

Another track I selected was “Well You Needn’t”. This track is another one of his most popular hits. It was written by Monk in 1944 and happened to be written for one of his then students who he planned on naming the song after, but the student replied by saying “Well you needn’t” and the rest was history (Learn Jazz Standards). Dominant chords are found in this track, chromatically. This song is relatable to “Epistrophy” in the fact that Monk utilized a chord sequence where the root note moves by semi-tones. I personally enjoy this song as well. It has a nice sound to it.

The next track I selected by the renowned jazz musician, Thelonius Monk, is “Straight, No Chaser”. I also enjoyed this track in particular as well. It made me think of a night out at a fancy restaurant where you and a significant other or a group of friends went dressed up nice. Suits with ties and dresses with heels. This song is a “twelve-bar blues”, which is one of the most noticeable chord progressions in music. The melody also utilizes chromatics.

In conclusion, Thelonius Monk was a very very talented jazz musician, one that was definitely ahead of his time. From “Round Midnight” to “Blue Monk” to “52nd Street Theme” the versatility of Monk was evident. He was a revolutionary for his time and the creator of modern jazz, as well as bebop. His unique style and talent set the way for him to be one of the leaders in the progression of jazz. His skill set is one that few individuals before and after him possessed. Despite the controversy of how he was perceived during his lifetime, he is now know forever as a legend of jazz music.

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