Thelonious Monk: 'Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2'

The cover of Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 2

[MUSIC]

MURRAY HORWITZ, American Film Institute: That is one of the classic tunes of the 20th century. It's "'Round Midnight" by Thelonious Monk, in Thelonious Monk's interpretation, and that puts a whole different character on the tune from what you're used to. A.B. Spellman, tell us about it.

A.B. SPELLMAN, National Endowment for the Arts: Well, if you're going to do a record library — and I hope that all our listeners will — you've got to have Thelonious Monk in there. He is a person who will take you back to stride piano and will take you forward to bebop and beyond. So you've got to have him. Not only that, he is perhaps the most distinctive stylist in all of jazz.

HORWITZ: You know instantly when it is Thelonious Monk playing the piano.

SPELLMAN: Beyond question, he is so individual that it was pointless to imitate him. He's also a remarkably creative musician with a lot of variance in it and more surprise than you could expect from any artist.

HORWITZ: So what CDs should we have in our NPR basic jazz record library from Thelonious Monk?

SPELLMAN: Well, I'm recommending the two volume Blue Note set, Thelonious Monk, The Genius of Modern Music. These are early 78s. These are Monk's main foray into recorded music.

HORWITZ: And what year is it about?

SPELLMAN: You're talking about '47-'52.

HORWITZ: Mmmhmm.

SPELLMAN: And so here we get bebop when it is maturing. It's at a point when people have got the style down and are now more expressive of their own individual voices within it. And at the same time you have Thelonious who is writing his basic catalogue. This is the period when Thelonious got most of his tunes — the ones we know best today — written. And so these versions are very, very fresh versions.

HORWITZ: And these have really become standards for jazz players. These are tunes you'll hear on the bandstand on any given night at any jazz club around the world.

SPELLMAN: Today you will. But in 1947 to 1952, you would not because they were thought to be very difficult, because they were so unorthodox. They are not only individually quirky. They are structurally unusual, and so it was a lot more work to make a good improvised version of these songs than a lot of musicians wanted to do.

HORWITZ: You had to work to learn a Monk piece in a way you didn't have to learn a standard by Irving Berlin or George Gershwin.

SPELLMAN: That's right. Most of the bebop players were so accustomed to playing the standard American art music repertoire, the Tin Pan Alley songs, and songs that were composed on top of those structures, that they had a format laid down that they could work with quite easily. With Monk, you had to start to become quite intimate with the music, and open your mind up considerably. It made you a better musician to be sure.

And you also got to play some of the very best music ever written. Take a composition like "Carolina Moon," which is one of the corniest waltzes ever known to mankind, a real sappy sort of bit of sugar. He can make it into an altogether new piece. This is not an arrangement, this is more a...

HORWITZ: ... a "re-composition."

SPELLMAN: It's a conversion of "Carolina Moon." And you'll note as you listen to this, that he's got 2 different rhythms going. He's got the rhythm of the melody on top, and this real double-time 8 beat piece going up underneath it with Art Baker's drums.

HORWITZ: Anytime we are talking about a 2-CD set of a great jazz artist we are undoubtedly in the realm of something called alternate takes. Tells us about them, because you know, you're going to see "Carolina Moon Take 1," "Carolina Moon Take 2, "'Round Midnight Take 1, Take 2," "Round Midnight," Take 3. Why?

SPELLMAN: Well, I like these alternate takes. First of all, because they're complete pieces, and they're taken at different tempo. I actually prefer some of the alt takes to the ones that were sold for release.

HORWITZ: It's also not a bad way to learn jazz, alternate takes, because you can hear what musicians do back-to-back, just moments later. And in some cases they'll take a completely different approach and a whole different feeling, and that's what jazz is all about.

The CD is called Thelonious Monk, The Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. It's on the Blue Note label, and it is part of the NPR basic jazz record library. For NPR Jazz, I'm Murray Horwitz.

SPELLMAN: And I'm A.B. Spellman.

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