No living jazz musician has accomplished as much as Thelonious Monk. His music transcends jazz, in a way which Charlie Parker’s did not. He must be reckoned as one of the most important musicians ever to come out of America.
Monk is important in jazz as an improvisor and a composer. His improvisation is no way weird or esoteric, but develops logically from his own premises. His harmonic and melodic vocabulary, now so well known, is highly individual and has few antecedents in the work of earlier musicians. As an improvisor, he has made two contributions of prime importance. Firstly, his emphasis on melodic improvising was the first step towards the movement away from chords that musicians such as Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane have made.
Secondly, his highly original use of space and his attempts to impose non-metrical rhythmic ideas on top of jazz rhythms constitute a basic advance in jazz practice which will not be completely worked out for a long time. These ideas have created a basis on which jazz musicians can accept ideas of rhythm and time from contemporary academic music—a topic which we hope to discuss in a future article.
At his best, Monk organizes his solos with a beautiful sense of form—every note crucial and in the right place. His solo on Bags Groove, with Miles Davis, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke (Esquire 32–090) is one of the finest in jazz history.
One should also note Monk’s achievement as an accompanist. Sometimes, especially when he leads larger groups, his solos are modest and his most important work is carried out in the accompanying role. He is a very active accompanist; instead of simply providing a harmonic and rhythmic background, his playing suggests harmonic and melodic ideas to the soloist and sometimes uncovers the harmonic possibilities in what the soloist has just played. In this way, Monk can illuminate even conventional solos.
Monk’s composition arises directly from his improvisation. It has the rigorous and intelligent economy, and the perfect balance of his best solos. As an example of Monk’s ability to create great music out of few materials, one can consider Evidence, a perfectly logical but unpredictable balancing of isolated notes, arising out of an accompanying figure Monk formerly used on Just You Just Me. Despite their completeness, Monk’s themes seem to invite development. As a jazz composer should, Monk writes themes for people to blow on. His oeuvre contains a surprising variety of tempi, line lengths, melodic shapes and harmonic structures. Besides being technical masterpieces, his works are as full of human reference as the most programmatic of Ellington’s and Charles Mingus’ compositions.
This rich fabric has unfolded slowly. In part, the slowness has been due to technical limitations. (Even today, the imperfections in Monk’s technique are occasionally revealed, but, in general, his technique is perfectly adequate for his artistic intention.) In part, it has been due to misunderstanding on the part of musicians, promoters and record companies. Monk has fought hard to maintain his integrity and for this reason one feels reticent about criticizing him when he has finally achieved recognition and a certain economic stability. However, it is only because he has made such great music in the past that one must set high standards for him.