Yes, that was his real name and his middle name was Sphere. largely self-taught, he toured with evangelists in his teens playing the organ, and by his late teens was finding work playing jazz. he then landed a job as the house pianist at Milton's Playhouse in Manhattan where his playing style developed.
Here he met in after-hours sessions Dizzy Gillespie Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke and later Miles Davis; it was an instrumental period during which much of what was to become be-bop was formed.
For a variety of reasons his recording during this early period was spasmodic as was his earning power and although with Blue Note at the time most of what was recorded then did not sell well, it was also during this Blue Note period on the album Criss Cross that the characteristic of Monk's unique jazz style, which embraced percussive playing, unusual repetitions and dissonant sounds was first employed on record, and as he famously said "The piano ain't got no wrong notes!" and in ‘61 followed up with this: “You know anybody can play a composition and use far-out chords and make it sound wrong. It’s making it right that’s not so easy.”
Before the music this short film featuring band members including Sonny Rollins is worth watching as the Muso’s describe their life in music with Monk at that definitive time:
Coltrane, Monk and Rollins Are Definitive from Concord Music Group on Vimeo.
There is an element in his playing, I think, to be found in Brubeck's work a little later which was expanded by block chording.
After ‘52 he signed with the Prestige label and his first significant albums available to the public were issued but despite working with Miles Davis (who found Monk's style “difficult to work with), Max Roach, Art Blakey and Rollins, the sales were still not great.
In one of life's little vignettes he went to Paris and here from Wiki met……..
In 1954, Monk paid his first visit to Paris. As well as performing at concerts, he recorded a solo piano session for French radio (later issued as an album by Disques Vogue). Backstage, Mary Lou Williams introduced him to Baroness Pannonica "Nica" de Koenigswarter, a member of the Rothschild family and a patroness of several New York City jazz musicians. She was a close friend for the rest of Monk's life, including taking responsibility for him when she and Monk were charged with marijuana possession.
It was at Riverside Records ‘55 - ‘61 that Monk found his wider audience and recognition amongst the jazz buying public. “Brilliant Corners” with Sonny Rollins playing mainly Monk's own compositions was his first big seller.
Here below is the title track from that album……it is worth noting it was so difficult to play that the recording was stitched together from several takes.
From this period Bags Groove, Blue Monk, and Round Midnight were all destined to become jazz standards.
From 62 – 68 he was with Colombia records which gave him greater exposure and several classic albums came from that source, Misterioso, Criss Cross, and Straight, No Chaser among them.
That was really the end of his recording life. Apart from the aforementioned bits and pieces, Black Lion Records in ‘71 did a very good 3 CD compilation that’s worth seeking out.
During the Riverside period other to-become-classic Monk albums were released, including Monk's Music, Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane, At the Blackhawk etc etc. Many were live club recordings and the one at the Five Spot Cafe with Johhny Griffin is a good one.
There was also Thelonious Monk Orchestra at the Town Hall, an album that had Monk's music and Hall Overton's arrangements; it failed to some degree for lack of time and inadequate sound yet had the makings of something special. Sadly it was never followed up, this and a ‘63 concert at the Philharmonic Hall were the only large ensemble works of Monk, yet the good bits on this album justified more in this vein.
Here to give a flavour of the Town Hall album is Little Rootie Tootie, it has a wonderful bass quality to sound provided by the brass section that had been supplemented in this tentet.
And here is a rare piece of good judgment by the Beeb to record Monk playing his classic composition Straight No Chaser with Charlie Rouse on tenor. Mind you, the Beeb were guilty of a lot of good taste back then in many areas; not now.
This recorded in Denmark in ‘66 is Don’t Blame Me, a piano solo showing all the art and craft that he had in his own inimitable style; lovely piece.
As with so many jazz musicians of that era drugs were never far from the scene and Monk's strange behaviour later in life that went undiagnosed by the medical profession meant he had withdrawn from public life by the mid seventies and his patroness cared for him in NY as she had earlier when he was struggling for work, until his death in ‘82. She also, it should be noted, cared for Charlie Parker in his last days; strange but true.
From his live gig at the Five Spot Cafe with Johnny Griffin on tenor, “Blue Monk”, another unmistakable Monk composition:
Those lost early years, recording wise, and his sparse later output meant that releases during those last years and after his death were often bad recordings, parts of sessions and forgotten items cobbled together. Amongst all of that were some very good works that deserved to be heard and much that should have stayed in the box. It was very much a lottery as to what you purchased of his works as everyone cashed in on the grounds that all had a historic musical reason to be heard. Of course Monk was gone and almost certainly wasn’t capable of directing what should or should not be released in his last years anyway; most has since disappeared.
Having said that, the old Esquire label with its lovely thick vinyl platters had a couple of good ones I seem to remember; that now seem also to have disappeared .
This next is not all Monk, he plays two piano solos and then at this ‘69 Berlin concert you get Joe Williams thrown in and the “divine” Sarah Vaughan as well, your full pound's worth and good sound quality to boot:
Finally, the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane playing Ruby My Dear from 1957:
I only saw Monk live once at the Festival hall in London. It was not the greatest of experiences as the performance was late starting and Monk himself did not appear on stage for three numbers, leaving his “trio” to carry on without him. When he did deign to appear there was no apology, nothing. This was I think in the early seventies; whether he was being a diva or on something and getting his head together before appearing on stage is as mysterious now as then, though we do know through biographies on the man that odd behaviour had become almost the norm later in life and he had been hospitalised after being picked up by the police on one occasion, so we never will know how much of that manifested itself in public. But it did little for the concert as many people were slightly pissed-off by the time he appeared,. Doesn’t stop me appreciating his music of course; it’s just a small anecdote from years ago.