Monk, the Virtuoso

I am reading Robin D. G. Kelley’s new bio of Thelonious Monk with great pleasure. (Do visit Kelley’s site about the book for lots of great supplementary info – audio, video and prose “bonus tracks” you might say.) The book is highly detailed, and meticulously researched. If you want to know the precise date of David Amram’s 1955 arrival at New York City from Rotterdam on the ship ‘Groote Beer’, you’ll find it here in the footnotes. But the book is more than just minutiae. You’ll read about the importance of family life to Monk, and about his bipolar condition; about the challenges and pleasures of searching out the right sidemen, and about what it means to be a black artist in the United States. If you think of Monk as strictly an outsider, you’ll be set straight about just how big a star Monk was – the world tours, the cover of Time, the Downbeat poll wins. The book makes me eager to go back to the music, the sign of the best musicology.

There is one theme in the book that has given me pause – the references to Monk as a virtuoso pianist. I need to revisit the recordings, but surely Monk is not a virtuoso in the Art Tatum/Oscar Peterson/Phineas Newborn Jr. sense; not even in the Bud Powell sense of commanding florid Parker-esque bebop lines. However, a quote in the book from Hall Overton did help me get a handle on this notion. Overton refers to Monk’s “rhythmic virtuosity”. This is not a matter of dexterity, of fleet physical command of the keyboard; Monk’s pianistic virtuosity is more conceptual, more compositional.  This makes sense in light of Monk’s stature, along with Ellington and Mingus, as one of the greatest jazz composers.

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