Thelonious Sphere Monk was born on October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina and moved with his family to New York City at the age of four. His father wasn’t around the family much but did play a few musical instruments including harmonica and piano which may have influenced Monk’s interest in music at an early age. Thelonious studied trumpet briefly and began on piano at the age of nine. He was a musical prodigy from the beginning and in his early teens would play organ with a local church and won ‘amateur hour’ competitions at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. His early influences on the piano included James P Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith.
Monk dropped out of high school after his sophomore year to take a gig playing piano for a traveling evangelist and faith healer. After a few years he returned to New York and gigged with his own group until 1941, when he was hired by Kenny Clarke to be the house piano player at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. It was here bebop began at late night jam sessions with Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Oscar Pettiford, Bud Powell and others. Thelonious was known as “The High Priest of Bebop” for his role in its creation. Despite this, Monk had a style so unique and ahead of his time that the critics and even many jazz musicians didn’t know what to think about him.
In 1944, Coleman Hawkins hired Monk for his first steady gig and first recording. It wasn’t until Monk was thirty years old, a seasoned veteran and great innovator of jazz, that he was signed to his first record deal with Blue Note in 1947. Monk recorded several records on the Blue Note label into the early ‘50s which at the time did not do very well and are considered classics today. It wasn’t until 1955, after recordings with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Milt Jackson, that Monk finally began to receive the appreciation he deserved. Also helping was the release of “Thelonious Monk play Duke Ellington”, designed to help audiences grasp the brilliance of Monk’s playing.
By the 1960s, Monk was touring the world playing with his quartet featuring Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone, John Ore or Larry Gales on bass, and Frankie Dunlop or Ben Riley on drums. In 1964, Monk became only the third jazz musician ever to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. In ’68 Thelonious recorded his last album with the Columbia label, with Oliver Nelson’s orchestra, and due to its lack of success was dropped from the record label. After this, Monk played publically more sparingly and made his last public appearance in 1976. In 1982, Thelonious Monk had a stroke and went into a coma and passed away twelve days later.
In 1993 Monk was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and in ’96 a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz was also created in his honor in addition to many television and musical tributes.
"I don't know what other people are doing - I just know about me." – Thelonious Monk