Thelonius Monk – born October 10, 1917

October 10, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Happy 100th Birthday!

Musicians often refer to songs by jazzers as “tunes.” Whose tune is that?” one musician might ask another who has just played something that’s not entirely familiar?   Standards (by Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers, Arlen, et al.) can be “songs,” maybe because they come ready-made with lyrics. But  numbers by jazz musicians are usually “tunes” – Bud Powell tunes, Bird tunes.

The works of a few jazz greats are spoken of as not just tunes but also as “compositions.” Ellington, of course, who wrote works that lent themselves to full arrangements for his orchestra.  But also Monk, even though most of his compositions were originally vehicles for a trio or quartet or even just solo piano. Most of these are in the standard 32-bar format, but for some reason I cannot quite explain, while Dizzy’s “Night in Tunisia” is a tune, “Round Midnight” is a composition.

It’s fairly easy to understand why a tune is a composition when it has notes in addition to the melody that are essential. “Ruby My Dear,” “Crepuscule With Nellie,” “Monk’s Mood,” and others. But even Monk’s tunes that can be written as a single-line lead-sheet are thought of as compositions. “Well, You Needn’t” is a 32-bar AABA tune, and the A section has only two alternating chords, F and G-flat. Yet it’s a “composition.”

Here’s “Crepuscule With Nellie,” recorded in 1957.


The album is “Monk’s Music” – Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins on tenor, Gigi Gryce alto, Ray Copeland trumpet,Wilbur Ware bass, Shadow Wilson drums. I wish I knew more about this recording date. Except for Coltrane and perhaps Shadow Wilson, these were not people Monk was playing regularly with.

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