Thelonious Sphere Monk (October 10, 1917–February 17, 1982) was a jazz pianist and composer known for his unique improvisational style and many contributions to the standard jazz repertoire. While Monk is often regarded as a founder of bebop, his playing style evolved away from the form.
Little is known about his early life. Born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, his family moved to New York shortly thereafter. He began playing the piano at age 6, and while he had some formal training, Monk was essentially self-taught. He briefly toured with an evangelist in his teens, playing the church organ. He attended Stuyvesant High School, but did not graduate.
In his late teens he began to find work playing jazz; he is believed to be the pianist on some recordings Jerry Newman made around 1941 at Minton's Playhouse, a Manhattan club, where Monk had been hired as the house pianist. His style at the time is described as "hard-swinging", with the addition of runs in the style of Art Tatum. In 1944 Monk made his first studio recordings with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet.
Monk made his first recordings as leader in 1947 and cut the debut LP, Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1, which showcased his talents as a composer of original melodies for improvisation. Monk married Nellie Smith the same year, and in 1949 the couple had a son, T.S. Monk, who later became a jazz drummer. A daughter, Barbara, was born in 1953.
Monk's stated influences include Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and other early stride pianists.
In August 1951, New York City police investigated a parked car occupied by Monk and friend Bud Powell. The police found narcotics in the car. Monk refused to testify against his friend, so the police took his New York City Cabaret Card. Without it he was unable to play in New York venues where liquor was served. Monk spent most of the early and mid-1950s composing, recording, and performing at theaters and out of town gigs.
Having recorded several times for Blue Note Records during 1947–52, he was briefly under contract to Prestige Records (1952–54) and then Riverside Records for the rest of the 1950s. At this time though, his records did not sell in significant numbers. Indeed, Riverside had managed to buy out his previous contract for a miserly $108.24. In 1954, he paid his first visit to Europe, performing and recording in Paris. It was here that he first met Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, "Nica", member of the English branch of the Rothschild family and patroness of several New York City jazz musicians. She would be a close friend for the rest of his life.
Time Magazine, February 28, 1964In 1958, Monk and de Koenigswarter were detained by police in Wilmington, Delaware. When Monk refused to answer the policemen's questions or cooperate with them, they beat him with a blackjack. Though the police were authorized to search the vehicle and found narcotics in suitcases held in the trunk of the Baroness's car, Judge Christie of the Delaware Superior Court ruled that the unlawful detention of the pair, and the beating of Monk, rendered the consent to the search void as given under duress. State v. De Koenigswarter, 177 A.2d 344 (Del. Super. 1962).
In 1964, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine. By now he was signed to a major label, Columbia Records, and was promoted more widely than earlier in his career. Monk also had a regular working group, featuring the tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, but by now his work as a composer was quite limited.
He disappeared from the scene in the early 1970s and made only a small number of appearances during the final decade of his life. His last recording was completed in November 1971.
Monk's manner was idiosyncratic, even for a jazz musician. He would seldom speak. He would wear odd clothes and hats, and had an unusual, percussive manner in playing piano. At times he would stop playing, leave the piano, and dance while the other musicians in the combo played.
In the documentary film Straight, No Chaser (produced in 1989 by Clint Eastwood on the subject of Monk's life and music), Monk's son, T.S. Monk, reported that Monk was on several occasions hospitalized due to an unspecified mental illness that worsened in the late 1960s. No diagnosis was ever made public, but some have noted that Monk's symptoms suggest bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. His last years were spent as a guest in the New Jersey home of his long-standing patron, Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter.
He died in 1982 and was interred in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. Following his death, his music has been rediscovered by a wider audience and he is now counted alongside the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and others as a major figure in the history of jazz.