Few jazz composers or pianists have had as deep an effect on the form as Thelonious Monk. The North Carolina-born musician built his sound around a fundamental tension between tradition and modernity, between jazz history and a vision of some imagined future. The stereotypical Monk tune consists of fragmentary lines, strange chords, unusual rhythmic feels, and bizarre song forms. But he was equally capable of writing the sweetest melody imaginable, dotting a solo with unexpected references, and swinging just as hard as anyone else (even if his preferred tempo was a gentle foxtrot). In the early parts of his career, nobody could quite understand his iconoclastic compositions or his minimalist approach to soloing. But by the early sixties, he was one of the most lauded pianists and composers in jazz.
This year marks what would have been Monk's hundredth birthday, and Duke Performances is celebrating with Monk@100: A Century of Genius, a wildly intense ten-day festival devoted to his music. Had he been a classical composer, the centenary script would be well established: ensembles all over the world would devote huge amounts of programming to his music. Jazz poses a trickier problem for this kind of retrospective. Its ethics promote novelty, individual expression, and change. It is a progressive form that eschews the museum-style trappings that seem to weigh down so many orchestras. Jazz values improvisation and spontaneity, making the music impossible to pin down completely. To celebrate a jazz musician in a meaningful way, you have to decide what to focus on: do you try to play the notes themselves or do you focus on the spirit and energy of the performance? Do you re-create the way they would have sounded when they were originally created or do you update them for the way jazz sounds now? What do you treat as the musical source: sheet music, studio recordings, or live performances? And, most important, what exactly are you trying to celebrate?
Monk@100 is, strangely, one of the few extended celebrations of Monk's centenary anywhere. For the festival, co-curators Ethan Iverson, former pianist in The Bad Plus, and Aaron Greenwald, the executive director of Duke Performances, decided to keep things simple.
"Overthinking a conceptual approach to Monk, where you try to add a d.j. and video and a rock band and the internet and create something completely modern—that actually feels less interesting than just getting the very best musicians we can get and playing Monk really well," Iverson says.
Over ten days, some of the greatest jazz musicians in the country will come to the Durham Fruit & Produce Company to play nothing but Monk tunes. Duke Performances has purchased copies of every Monk record they can find—including the incredibly rare twenty-two-LP set of Monk's complete Riverside recordings—and they are making the lobby of the venue into a giant listening room. They're offering an exploration of Monk that's obsessive and deep.
"I was chatting about it with my wife and she said, 'So, people are just going to play Thelonious Monk's music for ten days...?'" Greenwald recalls. "And I said '...yeah.' It never occurred to me that that might be weird."
Monk's connection to North Carolina and Duke is somewhat tenuous. He was born in Rocky Mount on October 10, 1917, but his family joined the Great Migration in June 1921, destined for New York City. While his sonic roots contain a little bit of eastern North Carolina church music, he was really informed by the polyglot of Manhattan's San Juan Hill, the vibrant jazz clubs of Harlem, and the rollicking rhythm and blues he played while touring the Midwest in his teens with a traveling evangelist called "the Texas Warhorse." After leaving, Monk would only return to North Carolina once, in May 1970, for a short run at a club in Raleigh. However, his family had roots here going back to the early 1800s, and his final tenor sax player, Paul Jeffrey, later founded the jazz program at Duke University. So while North Carolina may not be central to Monk's musical life, neither is it totally random for Duke Performances to pick up his banner.
- Courtesy of Duke Performances
This is also not the first foray into Monk's music for Duke Performances. The festival is in some ways an outgrowth of the institution's Following Monk festival from fall 2007. That sprawling, sixteen-event series, which featured a wide range of musicians and dancers, was Greenwald's first at Duke Performances, announcing the breadth of his vision for what the organization could be.
"My experience the last time was the more time you spent in proximity to his music, the more it yielded," Greenwald says. Having discovered the durability and depth of Monk's music, Greenwald decided to go all in for Monk@100: "He's only going be 100 once—we're not going to do this for his 110th birthday. Let's dig in and see what the music has to yield."
To capture the spirit of Monk's music, Iverson and Greenwald decided to build around Monk's preferred configuration—tenor saxophone, bass, drums, and piano—and so the festival is bookended by two different trios. There's saxophonist J.D. Allen's, with Gregg August and Rudy Royston, and Iverson's, with David Williams and Victor Lewis. Supplementing each trio is a veritable who's who of jazz greats. Guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Kris Davis (replacing the late Geri Allen), and trumpeter Dave Douglas each sit in with Allen. All three are superstars, and the possibilities of Davis interpret Monk seems endlessly, but the piano-less quartet with Douglas promises to go farthest afield. Joining Iverson's trio is a veritable murderers' row of tenor sax players: Melissa Aldana, Chris Potter, and Houston Person, Joshua Redman, and Ravi Coltrane. Greenwald has described these four nights as "an homage" to Paul Jeffrey.
In the middle, the festival explores the possibilities of the piano. Two duos—Jason Moran with drummer Tyshawn Sorey, and Gerald Clayton with saxophonist Ben Wendell—will strip Monk's tunes down to their essence. And a group of five pianists will play through the Monk songbook in solos and duos. The only group not playing any Monk here is the Como Mamas, whose gritty gospel will provide a chance to reflect on Monk's years touring with the Texas Warhorse.
"There's one way that Monk gets looked at sometimes, that he's an experimentalist first and foremost. And that's valid, but it's just as important, if not more important, that you have black music and religious music underpinnings, in terms of his whole aesthetic," says Iverson. "I personally feel that the experimental side of Monk has been celebrated almost at the expense of the American black tradition."
This festival seeks to focus on that aspect of Monk, letting his avant-garde side filter through what Iverson calls Monk's "ancient principles," giving equal weight to the thorniest and sweetest portions of his oeuvre. It's a bold choice, one that might manage to channel fully the spirit and sound of his music.