From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk was born 90 years ago today in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Monk is usually remembered as a hip New Yorker, but some scholars and fellow musicians say Monk's southern roots had an overlooked, but important influence on him.

John Biewen of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University produced this story on Thelonious Monk the Tar Heel.

JOHN BIEWEN: Monk was born in about 100 yards from here. We're standing on a park. It's actually called Thelonious Monk Park. And the road that he lived on was called Green Street, and it went straight through here.

Mr. SAM STEPHENSON (Writer, Researcher, Center for Documentary Studies) I'm Sam Stephenson. And I've spent about a year working on an article for the Oxford American Magazine about Thelonious Monk and his roots in North Carolina.

(Soundbite of train horn)

Mr. STEPHENSON: Rocky Mount today is sort of a shadow of what it used to be. If you looked through the old city directories back around the time when Thelonious Monk was born in 1917, he had a very intense tobacco culture here, and the Atlantic Coast rail yard here was either the largest or the second largest rail yard in the whole south.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STEPHENSON: There's one particular song called "Little Rootie Tootie," which has explicit train whistle sounds in the song. He was almost 5 years old when he left here, and certainly, he was well old enough to remember. There would be train whistles all throughout this neighborhood all day long and all night long. When he moved to New York City, West 63rd street, there aren't any train whistles in New York City.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ALLAN GURGANUS (American Novelist and Essayist): (unintelligible) says, everything happens to you about the time you are three. I'm Allan Gurganus. I'm a writer. I grew up in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. I got out of there when I was 18 years old, but it had a huge effect on me.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GURGANUS: I think the first five years are extremely important, even if you weren't living essentially in the transplanted North Carolina in New York. And, of course, everything we know about African-American culture in the northeast makes clear that we're really talking about southern culture transplanted. The combination of that industrial sound overlaying on a sense of sort of strangled melody. I can't help hear Rocky Mount when I hear the music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. THELONIOUS SPHERE MONK III (Thelonious Monk's son): I'm Thelonious Sphere Monk. My father was actually a junior. Officially, I'm Thelonious Monk the third. Most people think of jazz as this very cosmopolitan, urbane, inner-city kind of thing that took place in the northeast and way out west. Most of our jazz greats, i.e., Thelonious Monk, Nashville's Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, all these people(ph) - most of these people came from the south.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STEPHENSON: Monk's mother left Rocky Mount in 1922, the summer of 1922, and she moved to New York City with Thelonious and his brother and sister. Thelonious senior stayed behind in Rocky Mount.

Mr. MONK: Now, Thelonious was a mama's boy. I mean, for real. And his mother lived with us, and died with us, in the same house.

Mr. STEPHENSON: His mother was almost certainly the biggest influence on his life. He lived with his mother until he was 38 years old. She was from a well-to-do part of the black community in Rocky Mount. And she had very fine taste in music and food and clothing. And I think he inherited that sense of taste from his mother. He also inherited from his mother a devout commitment to the church, and he grew up playing piano in churches.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MONK: I saw that in my father, yes. I saw that. And he would do what his fans would later call eclectic things, like the chord, a composition like "Abide With Me." But I know that that was a reminder to him about the church.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PAUL H. JEFFREY (Saxophonist): I remember Miles Davis said that Monk always had that churchy feel. I am Paul H. Jeffrey. I'm a saxophonist. I had the honor and privilege of working with Thelonious Monk for six years. "Blue Monk" has the gospel feel. The rhythm and the melody - boo-boo(ph), doo-dam(ph), boo-boo, doo-dam - sounds like a gospel piece in a way.

(Soundbite of song "Blue Monk")

Mr. JEFFREY: Here's what Monk used to always tell me. He said, you know, I'm a Tar Heel. I think he was proud of being from North Carolina.

Mr. STEPHENSON: To our knowledge, Monk only played in North Carolina a few times. And there was only one really major engagement that he had in his career in North Carolina, and it was in May of 1970 when he came to play for 10 days at the legendary Frog & Nightgown Club in Raleigh.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JEFFREY: There was a lot of people. Frog & Nightgown was a very cheery atmosphere.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

Mr. STEPHENSON: I believe it may have been the last time he set foot in the state of North Carolina.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STEPHENSON: One of the things that makes Thelonious Monk unique in jazz is that he was so committed to the roots of the music and the church and the blues. And he took those to New York City, and he created something there that there's no doubt, he would not have created if he had never left Rocky Mount. There are very few people in any sort of discipline who are able to go backwards into the traditions and forward in to something nobody's ever done at the same time. And Monk really did that, I believe, better than anyone ever had.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: That was Sam Stephenson, who wrote an article on Thelonious Monk for Oxford American Magazine. Our 90th birthday tribute to Monk was produced by John Biewen.

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