Thelonious Sphere Monk was an American jazz musician who is widely credited as being one of the creators of modern day jazz. He was born on October 10, 1917, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina to Thelonious and Barbara Monk. He had an older sister named Marion and a younger brother named Thomas. When he was three years old, his family moved to New York where he started playing music. He taught himself to play the piano and later attended the Julliard School of Music where he studied music theory, harmony and musical arrangements. He was enrolled at a prestigious high school named Stuyvesant High School but dropped out before graduating. During his teenage years, he toured with an evangelist named “Texas Warhorse” for whom he played the church organ and later moved out to establish himself on his own.
He first found work as a pianist at a Manhattan night club named Minton’s Playhouse where he interacted with many emerging jazz artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Kenny Clarke and Miles Davis. This was the time when his musical taste was developed and he quoted his major influences as Duke Ellington and James P. Johnson. His first studio recording was made in 1944 with the Coleman Hawkins quartet with whom he continued to work until 1952. He also married Nellie Smith in the same year, with whom he had two children named after Monk’s parents. In 1951, an unfortunate incident where he was caught in a car with his friend’s narcotics, caused him to lose his cabaret license. Without this, he was unable to perform in New York cabaret clubs, which was a serious drawback to his career. It was later restored in the 1950s, by which time he had established himself as an artist.
In 1954, he visited Paris where he made a recording with a French radio station and performed at several concerts. In 1955, he was signed on to Riverside Records. Although his music was much appreciated and admired by his peers, his record sales remained very low. The album “Brilliant Corners” released in 1956 was his first commercially successful album and is now regarded as one of the most innovative jazz albums ever produced. His other albums with Riverside were “Thelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington” in 1955 and “The Unique Thelonious Monk” in 1956. Some of his hits during this time include “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “Bags’ Groove” (in collaboration with Miles Davis). He formed a quartet with John Coltrane and a few others, and began performing at various venues in New York. He went on tour in the United States and Europe as well. In 1964, he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine, making him one of only four jazz musicians ever to be featured.
His new found fame soon landed him a contract with Columbia Records, which was one of the “Big 4” recording labels of the time. He stayed with Columbia from 1962 to 1970, who heavily promoted his work. Some of his albums with Columbia include “Criss Cross”, “Underground”, and the live albums “Miles and Monk at Newport”, “Live at the It Club” and “Live at the Jazz Workshop”. By the 1970s, he began to ease up on the number of performances and soon retired from the music scene entirely, especially as he was becoming seriously ill. He died from a stroke in 1982 at the age of 64 and is remembered to date as one of the most remarkable jazz musicians that America has ever seen.