He played angular and slow when the fashion was for fast and sun-drenched. And a misdiagnosed bipolar condition meant he retreated into silence for the last years of his life. But now the pianist’s singular talent is finally being heard
Consider this: both Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk were born in 1917. The creative DNA and brilliance of each musician were integral to the birth of modern jazz. For countless hours, weeks and months during the early 1940s they played, studied, argued and innovated together, along with Charlie Parker, drummer Kenny Clarke, bassist Oscar Pettiford, guitarist Charlie Christian and a steady progression of black men dedicated to exploring the possibilities of the music of their time, and to changing its shape. (And yes, aside from the pianist Mary Lou Williams and a number of female vocalists, this chapter in musical development is about the men.)
Then, by virtue of his crowd-pleasing pyrotechnic style, “dizzy as a fox” personality and willingness to school the squares, combined with the organisational gifts necessary to keep his bands together, trumpeter Gillespie’s career soared to the stars while pianist Monk, the jobbing musician who couldn’t, more than wouldn’t, conform to the conventions of the job, spent most of his professional life struggling to support his family.
When you understand the inside the outside will be just fine, he’d say, Get inside the music and listen.
Related: Thelonious Monk: An American Original by Robin DG Kelley | Book review