Thelonious Monk: Jazz Icon-Deeper Than The Surface

Methods of Research - Abstract

My research formed around Thelonious Monk is a comprised of scholarly articles, and books surrounding the influence of Thelonious Monk as not only a pioneer in the genre of Jazz, specifically Bee-bop but also how his impact as a musical artist has allowed doors to open up for other children/adults with autism as they are able to explore music as a concentration of interest. Thelnoious Monk was extremely influential, jazz can not come in conversation when mentioning the greats without the mention of Monks name. As an icon to the genre of Jazz Thelonious Monk serves as a notable figure in the jazz community, in which most of the research I found revolves around. Many institutions and scholarships have been erected and awarded in his name as he has made his stamp on the music industry and still continues to be mentioned as a legend in music history 


Thelonious Monk is a pivotal Jazz musician who perfected his craft and his love for music very early on. Thelonious began his music career at the ripe age of 13 playing the piano in juke joints and clubs and learning to read music while doing such. He would later go on to compose his own music and make his mark on the world as not only a jazz artist but a jazz artist with autism who placed all of his energy into the creation of his music. Many of his compositions have become jazz standards, including “Well, You Needn’t,” “Blue Monk and “Round Midnight.” His spares and angular music had a levity and playfulness to it. He had a unique improvisational style and made numerous contributions to the traditions to the standard jazz repertoire. 

Early Life - Childhood

Musician. Thelonious Sphere Monk was born on October 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. When he was just four, his parents, Barbara and Thelonious, Sr., moved to New York City, where he would spend the next five decades of his life. Monk began studying classical piano when he was eleven but had already shown some aptitude for the instrument. “I learned how to read before I took lessons,” he later recalled. “You know, watching my sister practice her lessons over her shoulder.” By the time Monk was thirteen, he had won the weekly amateur competition at the Apollo Theater so many times that the management banned him from re-entering the contest. At age seventeen, Monk dropped out of the esteemed Stuyvesant High School to pursue his music career. He toured with the so-called “Texas Warhorse,” an evangelist and faith healer, before assembling a quartet of his own. Although it was typical to play for a big band at this time, Monk preferred a more intimate work dynamic that would allow him to experiment with his sound. In 1941, Monk began working at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, where he joined the house band and helped develop the school of jazz known as bebop. Alongside Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, he explored the fast, jarring, and often improvised styles that would later become synonymous with modern jazz. Thelonious Monk’s first known recording was made in 1944, when he worked as a member of Coleman Hawkins’s quartet. Monk didn’t record under his own name, however, until 1947, when he played as the leader of a sextet session for Blue Note. Monk made a total of five Blue Note recordings between 1947 and 1952, including “Criss Cross” and “Evidence.” These are generally regarded as the first works characteristic of Monk’s unique jazz style, which embraced percussive playing, unusual repetitions and dissonant sounds. As Monk saw it, “The piano ain’t got no wrong notes!” Though widespread recognition was still years away, Monk had already earned the regard of his peers as well as several important critics.

Racking in The Accolades

In 1964, Monk became one of four jazz musicians ever to grace the cover of Time Magazine. The years that followed included several overseas tours, but by the early 1970s, Monk was ready to retire from the limelight; save for his 1971 recordings at Black Lion Records and the occasional appearance at the Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall. He has since been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry, and featured on a United States postage stamp. In 1993, he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement award. In 2006, he was awarded a Special Pulitzer Prize for “a body of distinguished and innovative musical composition that has had a significant and enduring impact on the evolution of jazz. Monk was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2009

Educational Jazz

The Thelonious Monk Institute was established in 1986 by the Monk family and Maria Fisher. Its mission is to offer public school-based jazz education programs for young people around the globe, helping students develop imaginative thinking, creativity, curiosity, a positive self-image, and a respect for their own and others’ cultural heritage. In addition to hosting an annual International Jazz Competition since 1987, the Institute also helped, through its partnership with UNESCO, designate April 30, 2012, as the first annual International Jazz Day.

Crazy In Music

The documentary film Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988) attributes Monk’s quirky behavior to mental illness. In the film, Monk’s son says that his father sometimes did not recognize him, and he reports that Monk was hospitalized on several occasions owing to an unspecified mental illness that worsened in the late 1960’s. No reports or diagnoses were ever publicized, but Monk would often become excited for two or three days, then pace for days after that, after which he would withdraw and stop speaking. Physicians recommended electrocution therapy as a treatment option for Monk’s illness, but his family would not allow it; anti psychotics and lithium were prescribed instead. Other theories abound: Leslie Gourse, author of the book Straight, No Chaser: The Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk (1997), reported that at least one of Monk’s psychiatrists failed to find evidence of manic depression (bipolar disorder) or schizophrenia. Another physician maintains that Monk was misdiagnosed and prescribed drugs during his hospital stay that may have caused brain damage.

Jazz Influence

Miles Davis made more money. Duke Ellington was more prolific. Charlie Parker was more revered. But no one had a more profound impact on modern jazz than Thelonious Monk. Even his name was one of a kind. Before Monk came along, no one played piano like him. His elliptical approach to melody and often abrupt, percussive style created suspense and humor on the bandstand, and his sublime lyricism made for indelible standards with evocative names like “‘Round Midnight,” “Straight, No Chaser” and “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are.” 


Allen, Candace. The demons and obsessions of jazz genius Thelonious Monk. 6 November 2017. Website. 5 May 2018.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. Thelonious Monk-American Musician . 14 February 2018. Website . 5 May 2018.

GORNEY, DOUGLAS. The Secret Life of Thelonious Monk. 29 March 2010. website . 5 May 2018.

NPR. After Midnight: Thelonious Monk At 100. 10 October 2017. Website . 5 May 2018.

SCHLESINGER, DR. JUDITH. The Definitive Monk Bio: So, Was He Crazy, Or What? 2 November 2009. Website . 5 May 2018. <>.

Silberman, Steve. The Key to Genius. 1 December 2003. Webiste article . 5 May 2018.

Simon, Lizzie. Thelonious Monk—Bebop Pioneer, and Bipolar? My Interview with Professor Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk, The Life and Times of an American Original. 1 Mar 2010. website . 5 May 2018.

The website. 27 April 2017. Website . 5 May 2018.



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