“Blue Monk” by Thelonious Monk was the pianist’s favorite composition, according to Laurent de Wilde in Monk, and he recorded it often. In a 1963 interview when asked to name a record that he plays on that he especially likes his answer is “‘Blue Monk’ with the trio.” He first recorded it on September 22, 1954, with Art Blakey on drums and Percy Heath on bass. The film Jazz on a Summer’s Day features him performing “Blue Monk” at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.
In Bebop: The Music and Its Players, Thomas Owens says, “‘Blue Monk’ and ‘Well You Needn’t,’ from a 1964 jazz-club performance in Los Angeles, are wonderful illustrations of bebop at its most joyous. ‘Blue Monk’ is Monk’s simplest, old-time blues melody (even New Orleans street bands play it). The main motive--a four-note chromatic rise in eighth notes--is the melodic springboard for several of Monk’s choruses.” Owens further describes “Blue Monk” as lyrical and easily sung.
Vocalist Abbey Lincoln created lyrics for the tune and recorded it as “Monkery’s the Blues” in 1961 with the approval of Monk himself. Carmen McRae recorded Lincoln’s lyrics in 1995 on Carmen Sings Monk, and Karrin Allyson sang them on her Daydream CD (1997) as part of a Monk medley which includes “Get It Straight” (Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser” with lyrics by Sally Swisher) and “You Know Who/I Mean You” with lyrics by Jon Hendricks.
As Donald L. Maggin says in Dizzy: The Life and Times of John Birks Gillespie, “Monk’s fortunes were at an ebb, because in 1950 his quirky style was too ‘far out’ for all but a handful of jazz fans; it would be another decade before the jazz public would absorb and understand what he was doing and give him the acclaim he deserved.”
Lincoln’s lyrics, which describe Monk’s difficulties, could apply to Abbey herself since she, too, struggled early in her career to reach jazz audiences:
Keepin’ on from year to year.
It takes some doing
Monkery’s the blues you hear.
“Blue Monk” continues to find favor with contemporary musicians such as pianists Marcus Roberts, McCoy Tyner, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Fred Hersch; trombonist Bill Watrous, guitarist Gene Bertoncini, and bassists Ron Carter and Michael Bisio; trumpeter Clark Terry, saxophonist Arthur Blythe, and drummer Dick Berk.