Thelonious Monk

On this date in 1917, the American jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk was born in North Carolina. When he was 5, his family moved to Manhattan where he started playing the piano, largely self-taught. His compositions “Round Midnight,” “Well, You Needn’t,” Straight, No Chaser,” and “Blue Monk” (among others) have become standards in the jazz repertoire. "Round Midnight" is the most recorded jazz standard written by a jazz musician, appearing on more than 1,000 albums. Monk’s idiosyncratic style utilized unexpected melodic twists, dissonant harmonies (which are pleasing to jazz players), erratic percussive phrases punctuated by unexpected hesitations and silences. Despite these unorthodox qualities, Duke Ellington is the only jazz composer who has been recorded more often than Monk, who is one of only five jazz musicians to have been on the cover of Time (along with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Wynton Marsalis).

Like his music, Monk’s views on religion were also unorthodox. As a teenager, he played the organ for a traveling evangelist, but it appears he was an agnostic who held no religious beliefs of his own. Biographer Robin D. G. Kelly writes that “Monk clearly was not a true believer,” and that “most people who knew Monk remember that he rarely attended church and did not speak about religion in the most flattering terms.” His niece Charlotte said “he was never into religion. Religion was not his thing. . . . He never went to church or any of that. And his kids, he never took them to church. He said they had to have their own mind about things.” When the journalist Valerie Wilmer asked him, “Do you believe in God?”, Monk replied, “I don’t know nothing. Do you?” But Monk was tolerant of religion, and although ambivalent himself, he sometimes accompanied his mother on the piano as she sang her beloved hymns while dying of cancer.

Thelonious Monk was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation. D. 1982.

[“Do you believe in God?”] “I don’t know nothing. Do you?”

—Thelonius Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, by Robin D. G. Kelley (2009)

Compiled by Dan Barker

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