Lately, I’ve been spending my time revisiting albums that I enjoy. This past week, I’ve been listening to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk. Thelonious Monk is my favorite jazz artist! When I first started playing jazz, I was most drawn to his music. His eclectic rhythms and dissonant harmonies sounded so interesting to me. Though my knowledge of music theory was limited, I could hear that Monk was different—he had a very good ear for intricate melodies, harmonies, and arrangements. As I began to dive into the world of jazz, I fell in love with his 1957 album, Monk’s Music. From there, my interest in Monk only grew, and I looked forward to learning and listening to his music.
Monk started playing the piano at age six. While he did not finish high school, Monk later studied at Julliard where he learned the music of Liszt, Chopin, Bach, and Beethoven. Though, these artists did not satisfy his musical needs. He started playing jazz and eventually became an artist to watch. Monk heavily influenced cool jazz and bebop during their infancy. Monk’s music has been described as angular, slow, and dissonant. Even in the era of fast, hot jazz, Monk ushered in a new flavor of jazz. Thelonious Monk’s jazz was mysterious, off-color, and it filled his audience with wonder. Monk’s music was, at times, unpredictable—he didn’t always follow traditional harmonies or chord progressions. Dissonance was a signature of his, and he used it to capture melancholic emotions. He was also known to be a very intense performer, often putting all of his energy into performances and rapidly moving his legs while sporadically dancing to the music from his piano.
If you’re going to listen to one track from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk, I’d recommend Rhythm-A-Ning. I was given the sheet music for it at one of my jazz band rehearsals, and I fell in love with the song. First recorded in 1957, Rhythm-A-Ning is one of his most famous songs. The form of the song is AABA, and it follows a 32-bar chord progression. Scattered throughout the track are various ii V I7’s written in the key of B flat. The ‘A’ section of the piece is actually taken from Mary Lou Williams’ arrangement of Walking and Swinging (1936). The title of the piece plays off of Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm (1930)—the basis of bebop’s rhythm changes. While the chord progression may seem simple and attainable, Monk adds such flair to the song making it very bouncy and exciting. Rhythm-A-Ning is interesting to me as a jazz musician because it, like many jazz standards, is built off of simple rhythm changes, yet Monk transforms them into eclectic and electrifying melodies.