We asked Jon Batiste, Arooj Aftab, Mary Halvorson and others to share their favorites.
For over a year, The New York Times has been asking musicians, writers and scholars to share the music they’d play for a friend to get them into jazz. Now we’re focusing on Thelonious Monk, the innovative pianist and bandleader whose angular melodies and dissonant chords made him stand out among his peers in the bebop era.
Where other pianists played light chords with their left hand and quicker notes with the right, Monk played equally complicated notes with both hands, leading to complex arrangements that traversed the entire scale. But he never overplayed; his use of space between the notes elicited peace and tension equally.
“Those clashing intervals, you know?” the Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley once said. “Sometimes he’ll play, like, an F and F sharp at the same time.”
Monk was born in 1917 in Rocky Mount, N.C., and his family moved to Manhattan when he was 4. At 9, after briefly studying the trumpet, Monk started playing the piano in church and at rent parties. He attended Stuyvesant High School for two years before dropping out to play on the road with an evangelist. Monk’s big break came in 1941 when the drummer Kenny Clarke hired him to be the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. It’s been said that’s where bebop was born: Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Mary Lou Williams and others would jam all hours of the night crafting this new sound.
Monk’s solo career didn’t really take hold until the ’50s when, as a bandleader signed to Prestige Records, he recorded different ensemble sets with Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis and Art Blakey, which escalated his momentum. Shortly after he signed with Riverside Records in 1955, he broke through with the album “Brilliant Corners,” an acclaimed LP seen as the true launching point of his career. He played clubs throughout New York City, gigged with the likes of John Coltrane and Gerry Mulligan, then led big bands from the late 1950s to the early ’60s. In 1964, Time put Monk on its magazine cover — the fourth jazz musician in history to appear there.
Yet you can’t talk about Monk without acknowledging his erratic behavior. He had mental health challenges and was first hospitalized in 1956; he got into a car accident and was uncommunicative when police arrived. Years later, he was diagnosed with depression. Onstage, he would sometimes get up from the piano and start dancing, leading some to believe these were autistic episodes. Others say he used dance as a way to convey to his band what he wanted to hear musically. Either way, Monk is on the Mount Rushmore of jazz, and deserves all the reverence he gets for shifting its modern sound. Below, we asked 11 musicians and writers to share their favorite Thelonious Monk songs. Enjoy listening to their choices, check out the playlist at the bottom of the article and be sure to leave your own picks in the comments.
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Jon Batiste, pianist and composer
It’s not possible for me to choose a favorite Monk song. At 19, I became obsessed with everything Thelonious and spent a year focused exclusively on absorbing as much as I could. Monk is a world. “Introspection,” from the album “Solo Monk,” is borderline atonal while still distinctively melody-rich. The melody is akin to a nursery rhyme in its playful logic and symmetry, all while whistling overtop a bed of through-composed dissonance. Those chords! The way he constructs the harmony to shift between at least three identifiable key centers creates a trance-like quality to the recording that rides the borders of Eastern mysticism and some obtuse sanctified hymn. The chord voicings are constructed for every note to have a deliberate intention. There’s no room for harmonic interpretation here — if you add or take away any of the notes from his chord voicings, the song risks completely losing its identity. Monk’s way of “super syncopation” is utilized significantly in this tune as well, making his charismatic approach to aligning the harmony and melody a defining characteristic of the composition.
He named it “Introspection” ’cause he certainly had a lot on his mind with this one. Very concentrated in all harmony, melody and rhythm. The master of repetition. Over the years it’s the least played Monk tune of all. This is significant given that he is one of the most covered and influential composers of the modern age. I love the “Solo Monk” version because he doesn’t even improvise over the chord changes, he just states the melody twice and walks out of the studio (or at least that’s how I envision it). Sometimes that’s all that needs to be played: the tune.
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Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, composer and multi-instrumentalist
By my count, Thelonious Monk’s 1957 concert at Carnegie Hall was his 45th time being recorded on anything that was eventually released. He turned 40 years old the month before and was toward the end of his brief, but intense and deeply meaningful, collaboration with John Coltrane. While Monk’s sublime ballads “Ugly Beauty,” “Ruby, My Dear,” “Ask Me Now,” “Pannonica,” “Reflections” and “’Round Midnight” might represent some of his most genius work, I selected “Nutty” from the Carnegie Hall concert because of the depth of sophistication of the composition coupled with the sheer amazingness of his collaboration with Coltrane. It is a masterpiece, complete with disjunctive rhythms in the fourth measure of the form, perhaps most perfectly portraying Monk’s humorous dance style that he often did while getting up from the piano.
For my personal taste, the epitome of virtuosity is when artists not only know their instrument and medium thoroughly, but know themselves well enough to be able to communicate highly personal or emotional concepts and stories through their work. “Nutty” is a tour de force of communication at the highest levels. So much happens within these five minutes that is mind blowing to me every time I listen, and I can’t help but to be left in utter awe and gratitude for the lives of these amazing gentlemen who continually chose transcendence and sophistication while the world around them so often chose barbarity.
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Arooj Aftab, musician
I found my mind kind of walking away from whatever was going on around me when I first heard this tune. I was just smiling and thinking about being at Zinc Bar in the West Village, talking to someone special. And then I kind of came back like, “Whoa, what is this beauty I’m hearing?” It was playing in a scene in some old movie I was watching on a plane. It’s become a beautiful mainstay in my vault of “deeper cuts” and I often head over to the “Thelonious Alone in San Francisco” album to listen to it. I really, really love this one. Every note kind of turns my head upside down and makes my ears smile. I love the way it’s paced, almost like a conversation. Other times it feels like a pendulum. There is an unbelievable amount of swag in the whole piece. I like hearing his voice quietly in the back, too. It perfectly sums up something very sweet and nostalgic, aptly “reflective,” like the “A” is the original story and the rest of what he plays around it is how we feel about the story as the years have gone by.
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Andrew Winistorfer, writer and reissue producer
Listening to Thelonious Monk sometimes feels like listening to Monk listening to Monk; he spent much of his recorded output reworking, rerecording and recontextualizing his masterwork compositions like “Ruby, My Dear” and “Crepuscule With Nellie” across multiple albums. His sense of the avant-garde meant not only breaking with established traditions, but also breaking his established songs.
Which is why listening to “Ugly Beauty” feels like such a revelation: Here is Monk, on his last album with a quartet (1968’s “Underground”), playing the only waltz of his career. You can hear him roll and flit in and around the tenor work of Charlie Rouse, giving the proceedings a broken, emotional denouement in every key struck. Monk’s playing was always about feeling as much as technical proficiency, and here the entire composition is set up for him to be the emotional ballast, to the point that when he cedes the ground to his band in the song’s middle portion, you feel his return like a gut punch. But it’s not all mood music; he hits chords of dissonance that remind you that though it’s a waltz, Monk is still in there, fighting the fight against normalcy. One of his last original compositions before his semiformal retirement in the early ’70s, “Ugly Beauty” serves as a reminder that the true greats never stop evolving and pushing the bounds of their art.
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King Britt, professor and producer
“Evidence” is one of the best examples of shifting time against the meter, and in the process disrupting the status quo. The Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall is otherworldly. ’Trane’s tone (timbre) and blazing response to Monk’s time traveling through meters. A transcendent masterpiece. However, I also love the ferocity of this video of the quartet playing “Evidence” live in Japan, in which Monk’s intensity pushes Charlie Rouse’s solo to truly have a serious conversation instead of a humorous one in which Monk always includes in his playing. Watching the performance also adds to the magic as opposed to just listening — truly seeing them as a unit.
“Evidence” is the perfect title, as this song is a testimony to the fearlessness of Monk’s compositions and the magic of his playing. In contemporary music, I compare Dilla to Monk because of his placement of samples, challenging our idea of rhythm and hesitation. So much so, it changed the way drummers play.
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Nikki Yeoh, composer, jazz pianist and educator
In the ’90s I was watching TV. An inventor was revealing their latest creation: a suit jacket that could record movement. The clever blazer would “remember” the motions and make the “model” involuntarily move in the same way. My mind wandered — what if you could do this with gloves? How would it feel to experience how Oscar Peterson, Bach or Monk moved across the piano? “Trinkle, Tinkle” is the invisible memory glove and almost the answer to my glove-desiring prayers. So ergonomically written, pianistic in its approach. It embodies ballet finesse, angular jazz-tap punchy stabs, a percussive African ancestral message and a portal into Monk’s movement and mind.
I love the 2/4 bar at the end of the A section. The “extra” two beats remind me of when Monk thought the music was “cookin’” and would jump up and dance, a stumbling, twisty-turning dance like a soccer player dribbling the ball, with the utmost grace and purpose, the phrase landing being the “goal.” As with many Monk tunes, this piece is best heard and improvised to, while singing the melody. Just remember to substitute the 2/4 bar with a 4/4 bar in solos. Monk sticks closely to the melody on the original recording. Joshua Redman’s version on his self-titled album is excellent, albeit without piano. In my dreams they called me for that album, but I couldn’t go as my gloves weren’t ready!
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Morgan Rhodes, music supervisor
“Let’s Cool One”
Discovering “Let’s Cool One” was a complete love-at-first-listen experience. Having only heard “Solo Monk” before hearing this record, my introduction to big-band Thelonious was an awakening. While I’ll always appreciate the intimacy of the live recording on “Misterioso,” there’s something so compelling to me about the “Monk’s Blues” version. Oliver Nelson’s arrangement takes it to dramatic new levels. The upbeat tempo makes the song feel bigger and elegant, giving brass every opportunity to shine while marrying Thelonious’s well-known dissonance with traditional harmonies. The result sounds like a really good conversation between horns and piano — a call and response that holds space for both the avant-garde and the conventional. Monk’s playing is masterful on this one.
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Anna Butterss, musician
“Sweet and Lovely”
I love Monk’s own compositions, but there is something exciting about hearing his interpretations of jazz standards. Monk tinkers with these songs, reconstructing harmony and melody alike until he might as well have written them in the first place. “Sweet and Lovely” is one of these standards that Monk revisited throughout his career — when he recorded this solo performance in 1964, he had been playing the song for over 10 years, and had made some characteristic tweaks to the original. The descending sevenths underlying the melody are classic Monk, as is his refusal to resolve the final chord to where we would expect. The lyrics of “Sweet and Lovely” (which we don’t hear, here) speak of a love with seemingly no complications: “Sweet and lovely, sweeter than the roses in May, and he loves me, there is nothing more I can say.”
In contrast to this tone, Monk creates a more melancholy vignette. We first hear him play the melody in a lush, almost stylized, romantic manner, leaning into the warmth of his left hand, but the heavy descent of the bass line adds an uneasiness to the mood. Throughout his brief solo his articulation becomes more pronounced, until the melody returns in insistent, rolling octaves. Monk’s ending doesn’t quite seem to wrap things up neatly — leaving the listener slightly unsatisfied, and perhaps keeping the door open for him to return to this song once again.
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Mary Halvorson, musician
“Crepuscule With Nellie”
Thelonious Monk was one of the first jazz musicians I listened to (on an album called “The Composer,” in the form of a cassette tape) as a preteen. At first I didn’t understand it at all, and the improvisations were totally lost on me, but somehow I kept coming back to that tape. What drew me in initially were the melodies. There is a version of “Crepuscule With Nellie” on that album. It’s classic Monk, instantly identifiable. There is so much beauty and strength of melodicism, with rhythmic quirks and whimsy integrated seamlessly, like the most natural thing in the world. You can feel Monk isn’t trying to do anything tricky; he’s just being himself. Underneath the wonderfully twisted logic, it’s still a melody you can sing along to. And once you learn Monk’s melodies, the improvisations unfold from there and enhance everything.
Fast forward to 2005: I was happy, as a lifelong fan of Monk, when Blue Note released a live recording from 1957 of the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane: “At Carnegie Hall.” This version of “Crepuscule” is spare, as that song often is: essentially just the melody, first with Monk alone, then with the band. It’s a perfect entry point into Monk’s sound. Then, listening to the rest of the record, you’ll hear Coltrane absolutely take off — dancing around Monk’s tunes and then effortlessly plowing through to another dimension. Some of the most inspired moments on that album are when Monk stops playing and simply lets Coltrane go.
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Christina Wheeler, composer, musician and multimedia artist
While “’Round Midnight” is Monk’s most well known song, “Misterioso” encapsulates everything I love about his music. This was the first of his blues compositions, which he always wrote in B flat. It begins with a sparse, gentle piano introduction that unspools into a seemingly spare melody of repeating intervals that ascends harmonically. The steady rhythm accents on the two and four, moving with the hypnotic ticktock of a cat clock’s darting eyes or a dog toy’s bobbing head. What I love is how Monk twists the traditional blues structure so subtly, substituting these unexpected minor chords so he can add chromatic note clusters, only to leave the ascending melody dangling on an unresolved note. For me, this amplifies the enigmatic mood of the song’s title. Monk complements Milt Jackson’s limpid vibraphone solo of cascading notes with angular piano jabs. Monk then follows Jackson with a solo filled with all my favorite signature expressions: rhythmically off-kilter melodic splashes counterpointing the steady, 4/4 pulse; flourishes of whole-tone scales that juxtapose quick bursts of dissonant notes; and distinctively empty spaces that emphasize Monk’s flat-fingered, percussive playing. The melody’s reprise bookends the recording with a symmetry that makes “Misterioso” as accessible for dancing toddlers as it is for grown-up listeners like me. Blues is the foundation of jazz, and with “Misterioso,” Monk transmutes the blues so exquisitely and uniquely as his own.
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James Francies, pianist and producer
“’Round Midnight” is one of the best-written songs in the canon of American music; it’s a master class in counterpoint, theme and development, and harmony. For me when a song is truly great, most of the time both the harmony and melody can stand independently and still be beautiful. “’Round Midnight” is one of those songs. The melody is so thoughtful that it captures me every time. Hearing it by itself reminds me of when I first heard Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” It also reminds me of hearing Bach chorales for the first time, or Mozart. Each melodic cell develops in a way that truly shows how Monk’s mind was working during that period. The ascending five-note gesture that begins the A section of “’Round Midnight” is one of the most iconic melodic statements in the world of instrumental music; instantly recognizable. “’Round Midnight” is blues with baroque counterpoint and romantic harmony. Perfection.
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