Critic’s Notebook: At 100, Thelonious Monk Gets a Hero’s Celebration

Starting in the early 1940s, Monk became a major architect of the style known as bebop — and, immediately, an iconoclast within it. He helped devise its language of thick harmonies, zipping melodies and steamed-up rhythm. But Monk maintained a rough piano style and wrote tunes to reflect it; his virtuosity worked on a level that was more tonal, and more physical. (In Monk’s musical manuscripts, which Mr. Iverson discovered on eBay and posted to his personal blog, he even invents a more evocative way of spelling a bell sound: “Tding tding tding.”)

Rather than dashing futurism, his bebop was about arrangement and choreography. Each note in his compositions sounds like a weight-bearing limb, supporting the body of the song and leading into the next movement. And those limbs often pause to hold a pose: On a simple, singsong piece like “Rhythm-a-Ning” or a wound-up work like “Criss Cross,” he uses silence more than speed.

Photo

Mickey Maloney and his wife, Betsy, taking a selfie with their favorite Thelonious Monk album, “Monk’s Dream.” Credit Justin Cook for The New York Times

“There are few artists that everyone would have such a uniform agreement on: ‘Yes, let’s check out this repertoire,’” Mr. Iverson said in an interview Thursday. “Everyone that has come down to do this festival has been like, ‘Oh yeah, I’d like to study some Monk.’ Everybody is excited and sometimes a little daunted by trying to play the songs right, trying to have a personal opinion.”

A hundred years after Monk’s birth, on Oct. 10, 1917, in Rocky Mount, N.C., roughly 60 miles east of Durham, we’re deep into something like the post-history of jazz — at least as a definable style and a set of universal touchstones. New ensembles rarely spend much time on standard repertoire, and most mainline jazz is growing from the conservatory and the composer’s mind, not the fertile space of jam sessions. (Monk first developed a following as the house pianist at Minton’s, the Harlem club whose jam sessions in the ’40s incubated bebop.) To be an improvising musician nowadays almost always means writing your own textbook, often with source material from outside the blues and jazz tradition.

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