Even an especially accommodating definition of what jazz is will not place its beginnings much before the first few years of the 20th century, and so this world of music, this hallowed tradition which constitutes an entire paradigm of musical practice, is barely one hundred years old. Among many implications of this, one is that a single artist could participate in most of the history of jazz. Many did; and those who were canonized as jazz greats did not merely influence the development of the art form with a notable recording or famous concert, but continued, on many occasions, to shape and refine the possibilities which jazz – and all music – could reach. Born in 1917, 90 years ago this October, Thelonious Monk lived such a life within, parallel to, and constitutive of jazz as we know it today.As an inversion of the history of European classical music, entire historical eras of jazz history make up mere periods of an artist’s style. Because of this, a number of individuals like Monk held the power of changing the course of jazz history. In some ways, it is remarkable that we have such a clear canon of great jazz artists, musicians who added such a distinctly creative element to jazz that everyone ‘afterwards’ understood jazz a little differently because of them. The dust has barely settled on the 20th century and somehow we already know who is who. Miles Davis, for example, was like the Pythagoras, Pope Gregory, Beethoven and Schoenberg of jazz, and weaved the decades of music together in a complex progression of music. In contrast to a fairly straightforward lineage of composers through the eras of classical music, in jazz we find a complex progress of many simultaneous geniuses, who overlap and come together in groups and then go their own way again. With Monk, too, we find a pivotal genius through which it is possible to understand jazz’s entire history.
. But in many ways Monk is cleaner. If we had to continue our classical music comparison, we will give him a single comparison and say Monk is the J.S. Bach of the jazz historical context. What Bach did was unified the understanding of music before him into a style and concept of musical aesthetics which directed the next three hundred years of music. His clarity brought the music of his past into the understanding of music of the future. Though he did not make his strategies explicit, students of music return to him at every level to understand tonality, the possible relations among musical voices, and the boundaries of chromaticism. We cannot credit Bach for the invention of major and minor tonalities and the other basic concepts of common practice theory. We value him for showing us what was possible in the musical arena which history gave him and the rest of classical music. Like Bach, we do not credit Monk for theoretically establishing the versatility of extended tertian harmony, or for creating an entire new technique of playing the piano. The history of jazz presented Monk much of this: the style of stride piano, the practice of re-harmonizing popular songs, the established chord relations were where he found himself as he was developing his own concept of music.
For its youth, jazz cannot likewise be seen as proportionately smaller than classical music in importance. It was a big hundred years. In no sense metaphorically, Solo Monk is equal in significance to the collection of Bach’s chorals. Both these collections, the pure articulation of these artist’s styles, establish music-theoretical aesthetics that escape – shall we say transcend? – their role as historical indexes. They quiet the aesthetic relativism in us for a moment. We think, against our postmodern condition: damn, this is fundamental.
The paradox with Monk’s music is that while he was playing within a new sense of harmony, and hence establishing that harmony, his solos and comping are filled with seemingly archaic, “corny” harmonic material right along side what was entirely new conceptions of progressions. Yet the jagged, assertive character of the articulations and phrasing unified it all into a forceful style. For most musicians, playing with two almost inconsistent harmonic vocabularies would sound either ironic, or as though they didn’t know what they were doing in one or the other. Monk, though, plays a simple G major chord in the same character as a G7b9#11. There are no wrong notes here, because each note, each passage, arises out of a decisive physical gesture of musical creation. Unlike Bach, the harmonic context Monk established doesn’t matter in respect to what he played – it will catch up if it wants to. For us, though, it is the only thing to hang on to.
For students of jazz, the piano keyboard is a map on which the history of harmony is understood, from Bach to Monk and beyond. The context of what ‘works’ and what doesn’t is laid out in terms of interval relations and visual/kinesthetic patterns. Music theory and eras of styles are situated there in terms of notes. With Monk, the keyboard was not like this. It was a place for events, physical gestures turned into music by a physical encounter of a person and an object. While all
In music, we search for the right notes – because a composer told us to do so, because we heard them on a recording, because our elementary music teacher inculcated it thus. Bach told us one way of making the right notes come out. It involved, through intervallic relations, music which encompassed the entire keyboard. Monk tells us another way of getting the right notes. It begins with the keyboard, goes up and down it, then it travels out, floating above, into straight fingers, into the body, up walking around, an out of keyboard experience, then back to the single dimension of where the finger hits the keys. How do you play like Monk? Got me. It’s extended tertian harmony, it’s un-extended triads; it’s what has taken the history of music out of the traumatic Modern rejection of harmony and kept things going.