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New book focuses on legacy, lineage of jazz legend Thelonious Monk

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor

Gabriel Solis
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Musicologist Gabriel Solis's new book, “Monk’s Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making,” is about the "process of lineage and legacy and influence in jazz – the ways musicians actively work to take a hold of their own history and make something out of it."


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Thelonious Sphere Monk. Even his name was out there.

And according to University of Illinois jazz-music scholar Gabriel Solis, at a time when just about every chord or riff has been played or heard before, much of Monk’s music still registers off the charts on the avant-garde scale.

Ninety years after the legendary jazz composer, pianist and band leader’s birth, “I can put on Monk’s first few recordings from the late 1940s that he did with Blue Note and ... I shock people. Jazz musicians have moved the goalpost for avant-gardism pretty far along, and yet you can hear that and still say, ‘Wow ... somebody is doing something pretty far out there.’ ”

Revered today among jazz aficionados worldwide, Monk was “well known in ‘50s and ‘60s in a Maynard G. Krebs sense,” said Solis, a musicologist in the U. of I. School of Music. “His music wasn’t necessarily well known, but he was a cultural icon. People were aware of him. He was explicitly not mainstream. He was known as that nutty, oddball, far-out Mad Monk.”

A half century later, he’s still regarded as a cultural icon. But as Solis notes in a new book titled “Monk’s Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making” (University of California Press), Monk has to some extent become part of the mainstream, with a solid place in the American music canon.

In the book, Solis notes that the jazz mainstream extends “from Louis Armstrong through Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Monk to Wynton Marsalis and the ‘Young Lions’ of the 1990s. This ‘mainstream’ has consolidated its cultural position in contemporary American culture through a number of institutions, notably Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Thelonious Monk Institute. The canon-building practices on which this consolidation rests involve an attempt to construct authoritative texts of Monk’s music, to think of Monk’s music as ‘works’ in a sense close to that of Western classical music.”

Still, cataloging such works in the same authoritative manner poses difficulties, Solis said, due, in part, to the genre’s unique definitive characteristics – most notably, it’s highly improvisational nature.

“It’s hard,” he said. “It’s not like playing Beethoven. When you play Beethoven, you play Beethoven. Things are written down. You can put your own little interpretive stamp on it, but basically, two performances of a Beethoven Symphony are going to sound much more similar than two performances of (Monk’s) “ ‘Round Midnight.’ ”

Solis began researching “Monk’s Music” in the 1990s, spending countless hours engaged in “field research” in jazz clubs in New York and elsewhere, listening and talking to the musicians who wrote – and are still writing – the history of jazz.

While there are other books out there on the subject of Monk, and others are in the process of being written, Solis said what sets his apart from the pack is its emphasis on the history.

“It is a study of the impact of Monk’s music on the jazz world, and the ways that his music went from being part of jazz to being part of jazz history,” he said. The book includes a short biographical sketch, but “importantly, it’s not just about Monk,” Solis added. “It’s about the process of lineage and legacy and influence in jazz – the ways musicians actively work to take a hold of their own history and make something out of it.

“In some sense, it’s a book about how jazz performance is also a kind of memory or history practice – a history in sound.”

Solis added that he believes that music in general is “a kind of memorial practice.” He believes jazz is particularly distinctive in that regard because “the people playing it also are the people creating it; the people composing it, the people making it.

“Jazz is this space for doing history that’s not necessarily governed by an institution,” he said. “The musicians are able to do it themselves. If this means, in fact, that it’s an African-American space for constructing the community’s history, for talking and arguing in some ways about the community’s history without being beholden to the white power structure, I think that matters. I think that is part of why jazz has been so important specifically to the African American community ... which is not to say it hasn’t been significant to white, Asian American and Latino audiences. But it has been particularly important for African Americans.”

So what is it that made Monk’s music so original when it was created and so appealing still to jazz musicians and diverse audiences?

“It’s so hard to encapsulate,” Solis said. “Monk’s music is characterized by certain approaches, certain sounds. There are little things that he did ... this musical idea or that idea he used regularly in composing and in improvising ... a riff, or a particular way of choosing which notes to play in a chord. There are a couple of rhythmic things that are distinctive to him.”

Interestingly, though, when talking to jazz practitioners, “those are the things the musicians didn’t really want to talk about when I asked about this.” The reason for that, he suspects, is because “those are the things that as a musician you can’t do without sounding like you’re trying to imitate him. So, there’s this other deeper level that the musicians wanted to talk about, which is the stuff that comes from more study.”

The musicians – many of whom have been playing Monk’s music for decades – focused on the music’s more general characteristics: its humor, sense of space, or the composer’s approach to time and overall temporal sensibility.

“I think audiences hear this broader stuff, too,” Solis added.

While one primary audience for “Monk’s Music” is certainly other scholars and students enrolled jazz studies programs, Solis believes that much of what’s covered in the book also will resonate people who have a deep appreciation for jazz and Monk’s music.

“I know there are parts that are clearly written for other academics, but the jazz-audience world is a pretty well educated world. So I think there’s an audience there.”

A primary take-away lesson for readers, Solis hopes, is the same sense he himself emerged with after writing the book: “feeling really positive and hopeful about the future of jazz.”

“This is absolutely a music with a future,” he said. “And it’s a music in which looking backwards and looking forwards are not exclusive of one another. There’s such a thing as a progressive-historical approach that solves any of the number of problems that come with canonization.”

With the movement to respectability, he said, “there’s a specter of a movement to being bland and uninteresting. I don’t think that’s happened with jazz. And I don’t see it happening. I see hopeful signs.

“One of those is the extent to which there are people making music. There are a lot of people playing jazz and working with it in local scenes, in little places ... in towns the size of Urbana (Ill.). People are actively struggling with that legacy.”