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Thelonious Monk

The pianist Thelonious Sphere Monk brought a unique musical and sartorial style to the bebop era of American jazz. Born in North Carolina in 1917, Monk and his family relocated to the San Juan Hill neighborhood of New York City in 1922. He began to teach himself piano at the age of six, did not graduate from high school, and embarked on a tour with an evangelist, as an organist, before he transitioned to jazz. By the mid-1940s, Monk was employed as the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in Manhattan, where he engaged in jam sessions with myriad artists and played a major role in the formation of bebop.

In 1944, Monk made his first recordings as a member of the Coleman Hawkins Quartet and, in 1947, he became associated with Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note Records, who would champion Monk throughout his career. For Blue Note, Monk made his first recordings as bandleader and showcased his ability to compose unique melodies in which musicians could inventively create solos. Lion’s wife, Lorraine Gordon, became the spokesperson for Monk during this period and got him his first performance at the Village Vanguard in 1948, to which nobody came. In 1951, Monk was arrested, with Bud Powell, for possession of narcotics and, after Monk had refused to testify against Powell, he had his Cabaret Card revoked, which limited his ability to perform in New York.

Through the mid-1950s, Monk recorded for Blue Note and Prestige while performing at theaters and outside New York, including, in 1954, Paris. From 1955 through 1962, Monk recorded for Riverside, released two albums of standards to increase his commercial appeal, and had his Cabaret Card restored in 1957. With his quartet, which included John Coltrane, Monk performed a residency at the Five Spot through 1957, after which Coltrane joined Miles Davis’s band and the quartet was disbanded. He recorded his final studio album for Riverside, 5 by Monk by 5, in 1959 and had switched to Columbia by 1962. His debut for the label, Monk’s Dream, released in 1963, became his best-selling album, bolstered by the label’s promotional ability. His repertoire for Columbia was dominated by live albums and, by 1970, he had been dropped from the label.

In the 1970s, changing tastes and Monk’s mental illness led him to recede from the jazz scene. As a bandleader, his last recordings were made for Black Lion in 1971. In the mid-1970s, he lived in the house of jazz patroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, residing reclusively in a room with a piano. He died of a stroke in 1982 and, in 1986, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz was founded in his honor to promote music education in public schools. Posthumously, Monk was inducted into myriad musical and cultural halls of fame and, in 1993, received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.