NYU Black Renaissance Noire Winter 2014 - Page 37

Out of this historical maelstrom of multinational aesthetic and cultural traditions and conceptions, Monk consciously critiqued, individually reworked, and creatively extended and subverted the conventions of 20th century modernist and vernacular sources (including those of ‘Bebop’) to forge his own vision of what constituted ‘modern music.’ The first principle was a reliance and insistence on changing the sound of the piano (and by extension other instrumental voices in the ensemble) through an entirely new approach to note articulation, timbral dynamics, and use of temporal/spatial elements in his own improvisations and composing material for other musicians in his groups. As a result many early listeners of Monk’s music — musicians, critics, and general listeners alike — thought that Monk was not a very technically accomplished pianist (again in the strictly Western European traditional/ classical terms which were the canonical norm in the United States). This misunderstanding and profound ignorance of the actual sources of Monk’s methods and approach to instrumental expression and compositional structure was an impediment to many people in Jazz circles until the critical and listening Jazz public (and many musicians as well) finally ‘caught up’ to many of Monk’s innovations by the late 1950s. By then Monk was already an established twenty-five year jazz veteran whose once radical contributions to voicing, phrasing, and tempo were finally the ‘new modern mainstream’ of the Jazz tradition. The extraordinary recordings that Monk made from 1955-1965 only further solidified and cemented this reputation and suddenly made his work de rigueur for the young, emerging innovators and radicals of the period. In 1955 Monk finally began to receive the commercial attention (and monetary success) that had previously eluded him without compromising himself by ‘going commercial’ in any way as an artist. This reality completely validated Monk’s famous assertion that one must ‘play [your] own way’ and ensured that he would enter the rarefied pantheon of the greatest musicians and composers in the history of his art completely on his own terms. It was a profound lesson in artistic integrity, dedication to craft, and disciplined perseverance that would serve as a beacon for an entire new generation of gifted, ambitious players and composers in the 1960s, the ‘70s, and beyond who recognized that Monk’s greatest and most significant contributions lie not only in his fierce aesthetic commitment but in not allowing himself to be corrupted and distracted by the relentless demands and pressures of the marketplace. The result was one of the most singular, influential bodies of work in the entire canon of 20th century music. This essay is an excerpt from a new book-in-progess by Kofi Natambu entitled A BRAND NEW BAG: How African Americans Revolutionized U.S. Culture & Changed the World, 1955-1975. BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE The visionary quality of Monk’s musical aesthetic lay in an intensely self-conscious and self-reflexive effort to simultaneously question, critique, and fundamentally rethink the traditionally specific roles and identities of harmonic structure, melodic form, and rhythmic content in modern music and reassert/reclaim sound itself as the most important individual and collective element in both improvisational and composed ensemble settings alike. For decades since the 1890s both African American and European/white American popular, vernacular, and (semi)classical musics had been dependent on inherited conventional modes of organizing musical patterns through the predominance of either harmony (songform structures), melody (songform lyrics), or rhythm (fixed metrical time). By the early 1900s various avant-garde practices in the United States and Europe had begun to overtly upset and challenge these conventions somewhat (by breaking up and/or distorting/rearranging the forms themselves) but still largely in terms of the central role of fundamentally Western conceptions and methodologies that favored a critical embrace (dissonance) or dismissive denial (atonality) of the diatonic scale as a ‘negative’ reference (e.g. Schoenburg, Ives, Webern, etc.). However, through the then revolutionary interventions of such major figures as Louis Armstrong and Ellington by the early 1920s, Jazz began creatively embracing and appropriating conventional music structures and ideas from a myriad of western sources while subtly transforming and subverting them with highly idiosyncratic (and African derived) methods of either using dissonant or unorthodox harmonies as well as crosscutting and constructivist architectural rhythms (a structural and expressive device known as ‘riffing’) in both compositional and improvisational contexts. It’s crucial to note that the major black Jazz composers, improvisors, and arrangers of the 1920s and ‘30s (Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Art Tatum, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins) were very adept at using these sources while also creating and improvising entirely new ways of expressing melodic lyricism and ‘pop’ song forms such as Louis Armstrong’s brilliant inventions of ‘scat’ singing and ‘swing’ instrumental styles. 35 Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman the leading musical figures in a particularly tumultuous and exciting period of American art and culture.