Life and Times of Brother Thelonious Monk

by Samuel Black

Based on the study of music it appears as if some of the most renowned and highly celebrated musicians of the twentieth century did not complete high school. For example, James Brown, the “hardest working man in show business” who is also known as the “Godfather of Soul” did not complete the 7th grade (Biography). However, he has written over 5,500 compositions during his career. Additionally, B. B. King “The King of Blues” did not go pass the 10th grade in high school (Webb). However, he is the most celebrated blues player in the world with his famous guitar Lucille. He also holds several honorary degrees from various universities. The list goes on for other artists who have achieved success. Another famous artist and composer who did not complete high school is Thelonious Monk. However, he has sealed his imprints on the World as a great jazz pianist and composer. This paper gives a synopsis of Thelonious Monk’s life, his compositions and contributions.

Thelonious Monk, the influential jazz pianist and composer, was born on October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He attended Stuyvesant High School in New York City but did not graduate. He breathed his final breath on February 17 1982 in Edgewood, New Jersey. His apparent cause of death is from a stroke. He was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, in Hartsdale, New York (NNDB).

Mink was married to Nellie Smith in 1947. He had two children with his wife. The first child was a son named after him, Thelonious Monk, Jr., born in 1949. His son is also a jazz artist who plays the drums. The second was his daughter, Barbara Monk, born in 1953, who was laid to rest in 1984. I don’t believe his daughter entered the field of music as a career path.

After his birth in North Carolina his family moved to New York. He started playing the piano at six years old. He is a self-taught pianist. He toured for a short time with an evangelist and played the church organ (Wikipedia). It appears that like most African-American musicians who started their musical career by playing sacred music he selected the same path to follow as a start for his musical career.

In his late teens he started playing jazz. He was hired as a house pianist at the Manhattan Club. Some claimed the pianist in the 1941 recordings made by Jerry Newman at Minton’s Playhouse is Thelonious Monk. During this period his style of playing was described as “hard-swinging.” Later in 1944 he made his first recording with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet. Thereafter, he had his first debut album in 1947 entitled, “Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1.” The album showcased Monk as a talented composer who loves improvisation (Thelonious).

During the summer of 1951 a New York police investigated a car in which he was a passenger. The police found narcotics in the car. The police wanted Monk to testify against his friend Bud Powell who was also in the car. When he refused to do so, his cabaret card to perform in New York clubs was taken away. As a result, he was unable to perform in New York establishments where liquor was served. He then spent a great part of the early 1950s composing, making recordings, and performing in area theaters, and establishments outside of New York (Wikipedia).

Over the years he made several recordings with different recording firms. Between 1947 and 1952, Monk made recordings with Blue Notes Records. From 1952 to 1954, he made recordings with Prestige Records, and from 1954 to the early 1960 he made recordings with Riverside Records. His first trip to Europe was in 1954 and also performed in Paris. While in Paris he met The Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, “Nica.” She was a member of the English branch of the Rothchild family and patroness of several New York City jazz musicians. They became lifelong friends and she assisted with his musical career thereafter (Thelonious).

During the 1960s, he has contracts with Columbia Records, a major recording label. He received worldwide promotion thereafter. During this period he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine. He also worked with other musicians and composers during this period; one famous known tenor saxophonist he worked with was Charlie Rouse.

During the 1970s Monk did not make many public appearances. His last recording was made in 1971. He passed away in 1982. After his death there was a rediscovery of his music. He in now rated among the best along with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and other major recording artists in the genre of jazz (Thelonious).

Based on reports, he was hospitalized on several occasions for unspecified mental illness. However a public diagnosis was never made. However, some have noted that he was apparently suffering from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. He spent his last years at the home of his life-long friend, Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter in New Jersey (Wikipedia). Compositions

Some of Monk’s compositions are: “After Hour at Milton’s” (1943); “Genius of Modern Music: Volume 1” (12947-1948); “Genius of Modern Music Volume 2” (1947-1952); “Thelonious Monk Trio” (1952); “Brilliant Corners” (1956); “Blues Five Spot” (1958); “Monk In France” (1961); “Criss Cross” (1962); “Monk In Tokyo” (1963); “Live at The Jazz Workshop” (1964); “Underground” (1967); “Monk’s Blues” (1968); and “The London Collection” (1971, three volumes). (Wikipedia). These are just a few of his compositions and recordings. Monk has more than seventy compositions. They are considered classics. His compositions are inspiring to artists in various genres. Contributions

The United States Postal Service in recognition of his accomplishments and contributions to the field of jazz issued a stamp in his honor. The stamp was revealed on September 16, 2005. Te stamp was premiered at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of History, and was also featured with the United States Postal Service’s “Black History Series” (Music).

Monk is considered the founder of “bebop.” He has a combination of different styles of playing. He experimented with dissonance and it was considered strangely attractive by others who did not understand what he was doing or playing. He was hired by Coleman Hawkins, an established band leader, who appreciated his unconventional music. Bill Evans, another band leaders referred to Monk by stating: “We can be further grateful to him for combining aptitude, insight, drive, compassion, fantasy, and whatever to make the total artist. Also, we should be grateful for such direct speech in an age of insurmountable conformist pressures.” (Artist).

He is best known as the most eccentric jazz composer of the century. Monk is also considered as one of the early practitioners of the bebop and one of the most influential modern musicians. He also contributed as an influential and idiosyncratic bop jazz pianist. He is also known for his unique improvisational style of music. The Thelonious Mink Institute of Jazz Music located in Washington D.C. is named after him (Kelley). Summary

Monk is known as the father of the “bebop.” He has influenced many genres of music. The Monk Jazz Institute was established in his name. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor. His music was rediscovered after his passing and is still with us. Based on the record, it appears that his music and his accomplishments will continue to influence musicians for generations to come.


Works Cited:

  • “Artist: Thelonious Monk.”
  • Biography. “James Brown Biography and Accomplishments”, 14 Jul 2005,
  • Kelley, Robin. “Thelonious Sphere Monk.”, 2001-2005,
  • Music, Art, Culture. “American Gallery.” Center For Jazz Arts. 2004. 17 Jul 205, http:/
  • NNDB. Thelonious Monk. Soylent Communications,
  • “Thelonious Monk.” 17 Jul 2005,
  • Webb, Jaci. “B. B. King Legendary Musician Says It’s His Destiny…” Billings Gazette. 12 Jul 2005,
  • Wikipedia. Thelonious Monk. 17 Jul 2005,

Life and Times of Brother Thelonious Monk by Samuel Black

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