CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Thelonious Monk was a “musician’s musician,” a jazz composer whose music is central to the repertoire of jazz musicians today. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Monk’s birth, the University of Illinois School of Music and Krannert Center for the Performing Arts are staging performances of Monk’s music and looking at his impact through a graduate seminar.
“He is viewed as one of the most significant jazz musicians of all time,” said Gabriel Solis, a professor of musicology who has written two books about Monk’s music, “Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall” and “Monk's Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making.”
“He’s someone who created a whole language that everyone in jazz has had to reckon with,” Solis said.
The 100th anniversary of Monk’s birth on Oct. 10, 1917, is being celebrated at various jazz venues, most notably a recent 10-day festival in Durham, N.C., called “Monk@100.”
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts is presenting “In My Mind,” by Jason Moran and the Big Bandwagon, on Nov. 14. Moran is a pianist, the Kennedy Center Artistic Director for Jazz and the winner of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship who has been heavily influenced by Monk. “In My Mind” was inspired by a 1959 concert by the Thelonious Monk Orchestra at New York City’s Town Hall. It explores Monk’s influence through live music interspersed with spoken word, archival audio recordings and photographs, and video.
“(Moran) is really one of the major interpreters of Monk’s music,” Solis said.
The anniversary celebration includes a Nov. 12 performance, “Dizzy and Monk at 100: Celebrating the Music of Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk,” by jazz trumpeter Tito Carrillo, a U. of I. professor of jazz, and six members of the jazz faculty.
Professor of musicology Gabriel Solis is teaching a graduate seminar on Thelonius Monk’s music and his place in American culture.
Photo by Chris Brown
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Solis is teaching a graduate seminar for music students this semester that is examining Monk’s music, his life and his place in American culture. His students are creating new arrangements and writing new pieces based on Monk’s work, as well as playing his music.
Monk began working in jazz as the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in New York City at the time the bebop style was being developed.
“Musicians were starting to play very challenging music,” Solis said. “Monk was at the center of that. He was really the one coming up with a new musical language people would use to improvise.”
A lot of his work is very difficult, Solis said, but it continues to be played.
“Everybody does Monk tunes,” he said, adding that Monk’s most well-known works, such as “Round Midnight” and “Straight No Chaser,” were the basis for the “highly virtuostic, improvisational language associated with bebop.”
Although Monk was a prestigious jazz artist, he was not embraced by audiences as a popular musician during his lifetime, Solis said. But he became a cult idol, with his quirky personality and outlandish hats. He was recognized as a cutting-edge artist by other artists as well as by musicians.
“Monk really did craft an endlessly fascinating persona,” Solis said.
“He’s a larger cultural figure than just jazz. He was so interesting to a broader array of artists. There’s a ton of poetry written about Monk. There is visual art created with him in mind. There are films about Monk. There is a lot of cultural production around him,” he said.