Monk, History, and Me

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The following presentation, part of the NC Museum of History‘s 14th Annual African American Cultural Celebration, was given on January 31, 2015, by Elmer Gibson and is reprinted here with his permission.

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I was asked to give a performance and historical overview of Thelonious Sphere Monk‘s music, and how his music – impacted my art. The title was Monk, History, and Me. The members of the group were pianist Elmer Gibson, saxophonist Brian Miller, drummer Thomas Taylor, and bassist Daniel Hight. The Daniels Auditorium program this talk introduced included:

  • Blue Monk by Thelonious Monk
  • In a Monkish Mood by Elmer Gibson
  • Well You Needn’t by Thelonious Monk
  • Spheritude by Elmer Gibson
  • Epistrophy written c.1941 by Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke,
    who considered it one of the first modern jazz originals.

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At the beginning of the 20th century, New York City was becoming one of the most important centers of art and business in the United States. Around 1898, the immigration of 1.5 million Eastern European Jews to the city and parts of America brought with it social upheaval but also a new consciousness of arts, science, business, finance, and education. The opening of the New York City subway in 1904 helped bind the new city together. In the 1920s, the city saw the influx of African-Americans as part of the Great Migration from the American South, and birth of the Harlem Renaissance. The Roaring Twenties, as they became known, years of glamor and wealth, produced a construction boom with skyscrapers dueling in the skyline. New York’s financial sector came to dominate the national, and indeed, the world economy. The invention and production of the microphone, the growth of America’s electric infrastructure, and the national spread of radio brought the country closer together.

Despite the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed, many things were changing in our world. For a period of time during the ’30s, the hardships faced by everyone, both African-Americans and whites, produced an environment of compassion between peoples that transcended race. The New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt that allowed the Federal Government to create jobs relieved some of the financial burden while the Second World War sped up manufacturing production that created jobs. Gradually daily life became more tolerable as the economy improved, but the attitudes of compassion and equality among the races returned to the old standards.

During the mid-’30s, people were crisscrossing the country in search of jobs, and a new start to their lives, and large numbers of musicians settled in New York hoping to make their mark in the business. With the expansion of radio, the music of swing was flourishing throughout the country in both African-American and white communities, and big bands were performing in clubs nightly.

The American music known as bebop is credited with having been created by a gifted group of young African-American jazz musicians living and performing in New York around 1940-45. Although many musicians contributed to its evolution, the five men most closely associated with creating and developing this new jazz idiom were drummer Kenny Clarke, born January 2, 1914, in Pittsburgh, PA; guitarist “Charlie” Christian, born July 29, 1916, in Bonham, TX; pianist and composer Thelonious Sphere Monk, born October 10, 1917, in Rocky Mount, NC; trumpeter “Dizzy” Gillespie, born October 21, 1917, in Cheraw, SC; and alto saxophonist Charles Parker, Jr., the youngest of the group, born August 29, 1920, in Kansas City, KS. In terms of their individual roles, Teddy Hill is quoted as saying, “Monk seemed more like the guy that manufactured the product rather than commercialized it,” adding that Dizzy was more of a salesman/promoter who formalized and popularized the style.

Why did they do it? First they were each consummate, intelligent musicians even at ages ranging from 17 to 23 years old. They were aware of the impact of the new European culture that surrounded them. They were learned in the subjects of theory, harmony, and rhythm, and each had been taught to play an instrument by the age of 6. Each developed special skills and gifts, Charlie Christian was one of the innovators of the electric guitar with his single-string solo technique and gained national exposure as a member of the Benny Goodman Sextet and Orchestra from 1939 to 1941. In 1935, Kenny Clarke moved to New York, and worked in groups led by Edgar Hayes and Lonnie Smith, where he began developing the rhythmic concepts that would later define his contribution to bebop. Monk’s family moved to New York, and although largely self-taught, he studied music theory, harmony, and arranging at the Juilliard School of Music. Dizzy studied music and in 1935 graduated from the Laurinburg Institute in Laurinburg, NC.

Numerous theories have been formulated by musicians and historians alike to explain the nature, purpose, structure, science, and motive behind bebop although innovators themselves did not refer to the music as bebop. Kenny Clarke said in an interview that; “Bebop was a label that certain journalists later gave it, but we never labeled the music.”

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In 1944, Monk made his first studio recordings with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet, which was the same year I began studying classical music at age three and a half. (My mother was a classically trained contralto vocalist.) In 1947 Monk made his first recordings as leader for Blue Note, by which time I had at least a rudimentary understanding of music and a real love and appreciation for classical music. Jazz in my world was considered an underground music kept alive only by my older sister, who was an avid jazz fan and record collector. In those days the only means of getting news outside our neighborhood was either by gossip, newspaper, or radio, and an occasional news reel by Warner-Pathé News before the feature at the local theater. At that time it was the practice of the media to present images of African-Americans in a negative light as being slow-witted and unintelligent.

The average fan of swing, accustomed to smooth lyrical solos and standard chord progressions, viewed bebop as some kind of nonsense Devil worship music or gibberish with no real musical foundation. Long before I heard any of Monk’s music there was a narrative in the African-American community that seemed to float in the ether about a musician (Monk) doing some things that were totally outside the traditional musical standards; a man who did so un-apologetically and, most importantly to the African-American community,  fearlessly. In this regard it could be argued that he mirrored the tradition of Joe Lewis and Jesse Owens in breaking down barriers. Monk’s art was poorly received by critics in both Jazz and classical reviews, but the powerful new communications medium of television began to make its appearance on the scene. Even though movies with derogatory African-American characters that reinforced the negative imagery (like “Steppin’ Fetchit“) became standard fare well into the ’50s, the public could then hear the music and see the musicians in their living rooms and draw their own conclusions.

In 1950 I began the study of the trumpet which led to my connection with bebop. In 1954 a jr. high school music teacher introduced me to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Anthropology,” which I practiced and performed for the class. My first contact with Monk came ten years later, in 1964, when I entered a trio in the Villanova Jazz Festival. The festival was a competition dedicated to Monk, and each group had to perform one of Monk’s compositions. For my three songs I chose “Klacktovedsedstein” a Monk composition I had never heard, “Gaucho,” an original composition of mine, and an arrangement of Randy Weston’s “Little Niles.” It was at this point that I began to recognize Monk’s genius.

As I became more involved in the Philadelphia music scene, Monk’s impact was ever-present. Television began carrying more programs dedicated to jazz, and commercial radio stations dedicated to jazz were playing the music practically 24 hours a day. People were able to hear the contrast between Monk’s bebop and swing, which was becoming less popular. Movies began using Jazz artists to perform, write, and arrange film scores. The original film soundtrack the 1966 British romantic comedy-drama Alfie, starring Michael Caine, featured jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins and was a watershed moment for Jazz in movies.

I was privileged to play with some of the most noted Jazz musicians during that time and listened in on many conversations about bebop, Monk, Dizzy, Kenny Clarke, and the jazz scene in general. My growth as a jazz musician required that I understand more fully a broad spectrum of music, theory, harmony, arranging, and composing, just to have a meaningful musical conversation with these artists. During this period the old idea that bebop was gibberish, uneducated music was being replaced by a new appreciation for the extent of musical knowledge necessary even to discuss it.

Over the years, new generations of musicians, some without knowing it, have infused popular music with elements of bebop. After years of study it is obvious to me that the idea Monk started in 1940 is the foundation of the popular contemporary music we play today. That said, however, this lingering question remains: what was Monk’s message? The answer is both simple and complex. His message is the music.

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For further reading:
Du Noyer, Paul: The Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.).(2003)
Robin Kelly, Biographer: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2010)
Swing Era New York: The Jazz photographs of Charles Peterson (1994)

Monk, History, and Me
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2 thoughts on “Monk, History, and Me

  1. Maggie Duffey

    Really informative article, Elmer. Thanks for posting. I once walked up to Dizzy in a club in Seattle around 1990. I was working there at the time. He looked at me cautiously but the moment I said “I’m from Robeson County” his whole face changed and he started telling me stories. I recall one in which he told me that he was playing somewhere in Lumberton and he and his buddies had gone out into a field where he had lost his mouth piece. He then said that a “Croatan boy” had leant him one to get through the gig. He laughed so hard about that story. He really enjoyed thinking about his time in SC/NC as a young man.

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