Tag Archives: Thelonious Monk

Crepuscule with Thelonious


A half-century ago, jazz great Thelonious Monk led a 10-piece orchestra in a performance at New York’s Town Hall that marked the first time his music had been played by a large ensemble. The concert, which Monk considered one of the proudest moments of his career, yielded a classic live album that I wouldn’t recommend as a starting point for Monk novices, but is a must-hear for anyone familiar with the songs in their original small-group settings.

A couple of weeks ago, trumpeter Charles Tolliver and pianist Jason Moran led a pair of tribute concerts at Town Hall that duplicated the songlist, though not the performances, of Monk’s one-night stand. Fred Kaplan, whose writings about jazz are among the few reasons to pay much attention to Slate, has shrewd things to say  about the performances themselves, as well as the tricky business of trying to replicate recordings of music based on improvisation — especially an improviser with a style as idiosyncratic as Monk.  

As for the actual tribute concerts, NPR has posted a recording of Charles Tolliver’s night that should make for good listening while you check your e-mails.

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Blue Monday (‘Three Wishes’ edition)

Thelonious Monk composed “Coming on the Hudson” (see the clip) while watching ships from her window. Charlie Parker died while watching television in her Stanhope Hotel suite. She hosted jam sessions, wrote liner notes, lined up gigs and even took a drug charge when she and Monk were caught with marijuana by police in Wilmington, Delaware. Monk, Horace Silver, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris and Gigi Gryce all dedicated songs to her. Not for nothing was Pannonica de Koenigswarter nicknamed “The Jazz Baroness.”

The baroness spent the better part of a decade asking jazz musicians to make three wishes, and she recorded their answers in a set of leather-bound notebooks that included Polaroid pictures of each player. Those notebooks are the core of Three Wishes: An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats, a new paperback of the fascimile from Abrams.

If you’re a hardcore jazzbo, Three Wishes is a must-buy. If not, it’s simply a curio. I fall into the first category, and I find it a fascinating window into the past.

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Blue Monday

I believe it was Gary Giddins who called Johnny Griffin “the last of the Chicago speedballs,” and as the above clip of him performing “56” demonstrates, Griffin could leave most other saxophonists in the dust. But Griffin — who died last week at the age of 80 — had other cards up his sleeze. His 1961 tribute to Thelonious Monk, Lookin’ at Monk with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, showed everyone a new way to appreciate monk’s artistry, and in later years Griffin’s sound mellowed like an old meerschaum. Tyros should start with Way Out, a 1958 quartet recording that showcases every angle of Griffin’s artistry, and then start exploring.

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