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Thelonious Monk at rest. Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
Thelonious Monk probably wrote "'Round Midnight" in 1938, though nobody knows for sure. It was early in his career when Monk was composing in obscurity. But within a few years, Monk would emerge as a great jazz innovator, among those responsible for the birth of bebop in the 1940s. And "'Round Midnight" has since become an enduring classic.
Jazz is often romanticized as the sound of the city at night when the bustle has died down and there's time for introspection. But few of its composers ever managed to capture that last call feeling, and none did it quite like Thelonious Monk.
"He definitely captures the spirit of "Round Midnight,'" says Herbie Hancock, who played the tune frequently with trumpeter Miles Davis in the 1960s. Monk's theme isn't just notes and chords. It's more like a map of those desolate hours.
"It's the beauty of the harmonies and how the harmonies fit with the beauty of the melody and the timelessness of that whole creation," says Hancock. "He didn't rest on a typical palette of that age. He tried to find new ways of expressing feelings."
Monk is the most important composer to emerge from the bebop revolution of the '40s. By the time he recorded his debut as a band leader, in 1947, "'Round Midnight" was well-known, and other Monk tunes were in circulation among progressive jazz musicians. The saxophonist Sonny Rollins called him a guru, and many others, including John Coltrane, benefited from even short stays in his band. Pianist Fred Hersch, who recorded an album of Monk's music in 1997, says that Monk's compositions were an education in themselves.
"If you really look at jazz tune writers, I mean, you really—when all is said and done, you've got to put him at the number one spot in terms of writing interesting music that's durable; that can survive almost any kind of performance; that can be arranged and rearranged and still have the essence of Monkness."
With its odd stops and starts, and clusters of notes that could sound like grand clattering accidents, Monk's music challenged the most accomplished improvisers. Though he'd been a catalyst of bebop, his compositions avoided bop's jabbering showiness. His up-tempo pieces were known for their lunging, angular melodies and jigsaw puzzle structures; his ballads, for their haunting, deceptively simple themes.
"His ballads, they're not sweet," Mr. Hersch says. "They're tender, but they're not sweet. There's something tangy about them."
Fred Hersch says that for all its nocturnal mood, "'Round Midnight" is an oddball among Monk's compositions.
"What Monk does is—so often, you know, everything is built on a little cell and then it's sort of, you know, manipulated in a way that's not much different than what Beethoven did. You know, he took a cell, a starting point, and then worked with his material. And then when he needed to add a second bit of new material, then he would do so. And compositionally they're very tight. "'Round Midnight" doesn't really fit in that group of tunes, but what it has, it has a vibe, a certain vibe, and it has a fantastic title. And Monk was great with titles."
By the end of the hard bop '50s, "'Round Midnight" was firmly entrenched as a jazz standard, played by Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon, sung by Sarah Vaughan and recorded regularly by Monk in a variety of settings, including this whimsical 1957 solo version.
When film director Bertrand Tavernier came to Herbie Hancock looking to do a film about jazz in the 1980s, Hancock says the two agreed immediately on Monk's "'Round Midnight" as the primary theme.
"What he wanted to do was translate to the audience what that music feels like; transmit to the audience the spirit of the listening experience and the depth of the listening experience and how it affects your life."
Hancock knew he'd have to rework Monk's melody, but he didn't want to go too far. He eventually reharmonized it, elongating some phrases and making the chords sound slightly more contemporary. But he retained Monk's sense of late-night reverie.
I have to tell you, it was one of the most difficult things that I had done, period, up to that point because I don't want to mess with Thelonious Monk. I mean—and especially that piece. "'Round Midnight" is a cornerstone in the whole evolution of jazz, the fact that it has been able to capture the imagination of musicians for the past 62 years. You know, there are a lot of pieces musicians, like, they don't like playing anymore, you know, 'cause they've played it over and over and over and they get tired of it. But "'Round Midnight" is something you don't get tired of."
And that, Hancock says, is the best measure of a jazz standard, a theme whose essence somehow endures through decades of different interpretations.