Night Lights Classic Jazz

Thelonious Monk: From Man To Myth (Part 1)

Thelonious Monk was 'the high priest of bebop,' a family man, a bohemian icon, and one of the most significant composers of modern jazz.

Play Episode (Real Audio)
  • Image 1 of 3

    Photo: album art

    In the late 1940s Blue Note Records became the first label to document Monk's music.

  • Thelonius Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

    Image 2 of 3

    Photo: cover art

    Robin D.G. Kelley's biography of Monk sheds new light on the pianist's life.

  • Thelonious Monk

    Image 3 of 3

    Photo: William Gottlieb/Library of Congress

    Always know: the artist at his easel.

Thelonious Monk was an innovator deeply rooted in tradition, a stride-influenced pianist marketed as ‘the high priest of bebop.’ He was also a family man who became a bohemian icon, and one of the most significant composers of modern jazz. “Always know!” was a favored Monk proclamation, but in an ironic twist of fate, for more than half a century he’s been one of the best-known and yet least-understood figures in the history of the music.

Author Robin D.G. Kelley spent 14 years working on a biography of Monk, now published as Thelonious Monk: the Life and Times of an American Original. Gaining unparalleled access to the pianist’s family and to his archives, Kelley has produced a portrait that paints a portrait with depth and humanity of an artist most often characterized by his funny hats, his habit of dancing on the bandstand, and his eccentric behavior. At the same time, Kelley also offers numerous insights into the heart of Monk’s music and his approach to playing piano.

In the first of a two-part Monk special, Kelley talks with me about Monk’s early life in New York City’s San Juan Hill neighborhood. We discuss a little-known woman stride pianist who played a key role in Monk’s musical education, Monk’s teenage tour-of-duty with an evangelical act, some of the misconceptions that surround the birth of bebop and Monk’s role in it, and much, much more.

We’ll also hear many of Monk’s early Blue Note recordings, some of his early-1950s Prestige sides, recordings he made with Charlie Parker, and two live 1940s recordings that feature Monk at Minton’s, the legendary Harlem club that hosted some of the earliest bebop jam sessions.

For More Monk…

• Listen to some previous Night Lights programs about Thelonious Monk:

Side Monk: Thelonious Monk as Sideman

Sonnymoon: Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins

• Watch Robin D.G. Kelley talk about why he wrote his biography of Thelonious Monk:

• Read some “outtakes” from Kelley’s biography that offer further commentary on Monk’s music.

Music Heard On This Episode

Criss Cross
Thelonious Monk — Genius of Modern Music V. 2 (Blue Note, 2001)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Criss Cross
Thelonious Monk — Genius of Modern Music V. 2 (Blue Note, 2001)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Nice Work If You Can Get It
Thelonious Monk — After Hours at Minton's (Definitive, 2004)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Ruby My Dear
Thelonious Monk — Genius of Modern Music V. 1 (Blue Note, 2001)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
April in Paris
Thelonious Monk — Genius of Modern Music V. 1 (Blue Note, 2001)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Off Minor (excerpt)
Bud Powell — 1945-1947 (Classics, 1998)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Round Midnight
Thelonious Monk — Genius of Modern Music V. 1 (Blue Note, 2001)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Well You Needn't
Charlie Parker — The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings (Mosaic, 1990)
album cover
Introspection
Thelonious Monk — Genius of Modern Music V. 1 (Blue Note, 2001)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Let's Cool One
Thelonious Monk — Genius of Modern Music V. 2 (Blue Note, 2001)

Notes: Midpoint music bed.

Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Thelonious (excerpt)
Thelonious Monk — Genius of Modern Music V. 1 (Blue Note, 2001)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Trinkle Tinkle
Thelonious Monk — Complete Prestige Recordings (Prestige, 2000)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Bye-ya
Thelonious Monk — Complete Prestige Recordings (Prestige, 2000)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Work
Thelonious Monk — Complete Prestige Recordings (Prestige, 2000)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

View all posts by this author »

Stay Connected

What is RSS? RSS makes it possible to subscribe to a website's updates instead of visiting it by delivering new posts to your RSS reader automatically. Choose to receive some or all of the updates from Night Lights Classic Jazz:

Support For Indiana Public Media From

About Night Lights

Search Night Lights

where to hear night lights

This Week On Afterglow

Late Sarah, Early Fred: Sarah Vaughan and Fred Astaire

The cover for a recent reissue of Sarah Vaughan's recordings of the music of Duke Ellington.

New anthologies from two legendary performers of American popular song.

Read more »

Afterglow is WFIU's weekly program of jazz and American popular song hosted by David Brent Johnson.

More from Afterglow »