NYU Black Renaissance Noire Winter 2014 - Page 35

In 1936 Monk began playing on the road as a touring professional with an evangelist from the Sanctified Church named Reverend Graham (known publically as “The Texas Warhorse”) who sang and preached in various churches while Monk’s trio played rollicking gospel and rhythm & blues tunes behind her. It’s important to note that as early as 1934 Monk and his trio had already worked at small gigs and dances in New York, usually earning small amounts in tips and cover charges. Monk remained with the evangelist’s troupe for over two years traveling all over the country in both cities and small rural towns alike. This day-to-day immersion in the challenging demands of black folk vernacular styles as both accompanist and ensemble leader gave the dedicated young musician very valuable experience and provided the early aesthetic foundation for his eventually unique and independent styles of comp osing and improvising music in the Jazz tradition. In 1938 Monk, homesick from the lonely rough and tumble life of the road, returned to his beloved New York and soon based his own playing style on the stride piano traditions established by such living African American piano legends (and Monk’s personal idols) as James P. Johnson (who happened to live near Monk’s west side Manhattan neighborhood at the time) and Fats Waller. In addition, Monk was being deeply influenced by the pianist/ composer/bandleader Duke Ellington who also rooted his piano style in the stride tradition, a profound black vernacular music aesthetic of the early 1900s. It was the highly innovative modernity of Ellington’s fecund ideas in piano harmony, rhythmic structure, and orchestral arrangements that inspired Monk in a particularly special way and revealed the possibilities for him to continue and expand on his own experimental efforts. In 1940 the now 22-year-old Monk became house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse, a small Harlem nightclub and nightly gathering place for many aspiring young Jazz musicians and composers who came together on a regular basis at the club to jam and experiment with new musical ideas during afterhours at all night and early morning sessions. These sessions soon became legendary as the place where, in the mid-1940s, the revolutionary Jazz style ‘Bebop’ was born. Monk’s deep involvement with this movement during endless jam sessions in the early and mid-1940s made Monk’s name well known to other musicians who became very familiar with his challenging compositions and unusual solo playing. This was of course long before the general listening public became aware of his talents. From 1940-1945, an intensely creative period in which BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE money on their daughter’s lessons since Marion had no real interest in playing music, but it was very apparent to the teacher that her younger brother Thelonious had “a prodigious talent.” This quickly led to the highly precocious youngster enrolling in music courses in school and taking professional lessons from a series of private teachers. Since Monk also excelled academically in math and physics it wasn’t long before Monk began formally composing music, using his command of harmony and melodic ideas to augment his already extraordinary rhythmic sense. By the time Monk turned 19 in 1936 he had already written a number of major compositions, most notably “Ruby My Dear,” that were destined to become Jazz classics. 33 Like everything else about him — from his highly original name to his stubbornly independent, innovative, and utterly idiosyncratic approach to nearly every aspect of his extraordinary life and career — Monk was his “own man” from very early on. Moving with his family from North Carolina to New York at the age of five in 1922, the precocious Monk always went his own way and made his own decisions about how he wanted to live — even as a child. Thus, during his junior year in the spring of 1934 Monk left the academically rigorous and prestigious Stuyvesant High School in New York (which was and is a very competitive citywide magnet school which only admitted the best and most gifted students in the city) to pursue a professional career in music. He was just 17 at the time but had already impressed a number of his teachers and musical peers as a young man of great talent and potential. Coming from a very proud and independent black working-class family who loved music and insisted that their three children take music lessons (both of Monk’s parents worked and Thelonious, Sr. — Monk’s father — also played piano), Monk initially resisted his mother’s suggestions that he play violin and later the trumpet (neither of which Monk liked). However, young Thelonious was utterly fascinated by his sister Marion’s piano lessons which she took on the family’s upright piano and the ten year old much preferred listening to her, especially when her music teacher came to their house. By the age of 12 in 1930 Monk had already learned to play the piano very well on his own by ear and keen observation. Highly impressed, the music teacher, a Mr. Wolfe (who was then a student at New York’s famed Julliard School of Music), told Monk’s parents not to waste any more