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Jazz at Lincoln Center: The Monk Festival

By Scott H. Thompson
20 Nov 2008

Thelonious Monk
photo by Herman Leonard

In November, Jazz at Lincoln Center celebrates the musical genius of Thelonious Monk. The Monk Festival, running in all three venues Nov. 20-23, will welcome such talents as Marcus Roberts, Wynton Marsalis and Danilo Pérez.

Thelonious Monk turned the world on its ear when he blasted onto the music scene in the 1940s. Today, nearly seven decades later, his music is still fresh, inspiring and exploratory. Jazz at Lincoln Center celebrates the legacy of Monk with The Monk Festival November 20–22 in all three venues in Frederick P. Rose Hall: Rose Theater, The Allen Room, and Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.

Thelonious Monk (1917–1982) was inducted into Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame (http://www.jalc.org/halloffame) in 2004. Born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 1917, Monk and his family moved five years later to the San Juan Hill neighborhood of Manhattan, just around the corner from where Jazz at Lincoln Center now stands.

In Rose Theater, November 20–22, The Music of Thelonious Monk will be performed by pianist Marcus Roberts and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. In The Allen Room November 21–22, Danilo Pérez performs Panamonk Revisited music from his acclaimed album and of other Monk’s music. In Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola taking the stage November 21–23 is Mostly Monk: One For All featuring Eric Alexander, Steve Davis, Jim Rotondi, Dave Hazeltine, John Webber and Joe Farnsworth.

Marcus Roberts remains in awe of Monk’s “absolutely unparalleled contribution to modern jazz as an accompanist, bandleader and composer,” noting that Monk “was certainly one of the major architects of bebop and so many major people talk about how he taught them—Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie—he taught everybody what the style was about.” But Roberts also reminds us that Monk preferred not to play bebop itself, but that his own music was more thematically driven. “I always think of Monk as a poet who wrote short-form pieces, but pieces infinite in scope of design and in scope of improvisational possibilities,” says Roberts.

For Roberts, Monk’s music “is one-hundred percent about American jazz,” holding the essence of the past, but also the complexities of modern styles. “That’s what I think makes him so special,” says Roberts. “His rhythms are syncopated, there’s so much blues in every melody—he had such a beautiful way of reconciling all the oppositions in our music. His music could sound childlike yet adult. It’s merging of all of the contrasts of emotions, all of the tension that we all trouble with in life: Monk puts it in such a dignified, such a noble context that it’s hard to listen to Thelonious and not feel hope.”

Monk’s roots run deep, drawing from various virtuosos. He picked up where Duke Ellington left off in extending the functionality of the piano in a jazz setting and is linked to the stride tradition of James P. Johnson, Fats Waller and Art Tatum, but Monk also carries with him the the modern bebop language, putting him in a special position in modern American music. Monk’s contemporaries, notes Roberts, were in awe of him, “and they should’ve been,” he said.

Roberts credits Wynton Marsalis for his immersion in Monk and his gradual understanding of his music. Listening to Roberts’ mastery of the instrument today, it’s obvious that he took the wisdom master Monk brought to the table. “That’s the beauty of great art,” says Roberts. “Great art doesn’t limit possibilities, it expands them. Monk gave us so many things to explore that we still haven’t explored… it’s just that broad of a philosophy.”

“The biggest thing I take from Monk is the soul of his playing, the feeling of it, the way he made the piano ring different ways,” says Roberts. “I also take his use of space and acoustics. Finally, I learned his understanding of every register of the piano having its own special orchestral mood that it can produce. When you put all that together, you’ve got a whole lot to work with.”

For more information on The Monk Festival, visit www.jalc.org.

For tickets to Rose Theater and The Allen Room, call CenterCharge at (212) 721-6500; for reservations to Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, call (212) 258-9595.

Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director for Public Relations at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Marcus Roberts





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