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Blue Monk (1954)

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Origin and Chart Information
“‘Blue Monk’ is Monk’s simplest, old-time blues melody (even New Orleans street bands play it).”

- Thomas Owens

Rank 185
Written by Thelonious Monk

“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.


More on Thelonious Monk at JazzBiographies.com

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:

Being complete,
Knowing defeat,
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.

- Sandra Burlingame

Recommendations for This Tune
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Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk Trio: Rudy Van Gelder Remasters
Original Recording 1954

Though the song’s melody would still evolve a bit, Monk’s original recording of “Blue Monk” is as brilliant as it is essential. His solo is thematic and exploratory and there are also great contributions and solos from bassist Percy Heath and drummer Art Blakey.

Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk
Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk
Atlantic / Wea
Original Recording 1957

This is a particularly slow version of “Blue Monk,” documenting Monk’s great relationship with drummer Art Blakey in the context of Blakey’s own band. Aside from Monk, soloists include Bill Hardman on trumpet, Spanky DeBrest on bass and Johnny Griffin with a burning tenor saxophone solo.

Jimmy Giuffre
Western Suite
Atlantic UK
Original Recording 1958

This highly creative re-interpretation of “Blue Monk” transforms it into a Dixie-style blues. There are excellent solos by Giuffre on clarinet and Bob Brookmeyer on trombone, while guitarist Jim Hall does a remarkable job as the sole member of the rhythm section.

Abbey Lincoln
Straight Ahead
Candid Records
Original Recording 1961

This edgy performance by Lincoln is responsible for introducing her lyrics to “Blue Monk.” Trumpeter Booker Little interacts wonderfully with Lincoln on the melody, and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins offers a brilliant, thematically developed tenor solo, perhaps in tribute to Monk, his former employee.

Bill Evans
Conversations With Myself
Polygram Records
Original Recording 1963

Evans’ performance here is creative, swinging, unusually bluesy and very interactive. Through use of studio overdubbing, the interactivity occurs with himself, with multiple tracks of piano

Hank Jones
Live at Maybeck 16
Concord Records
Original Recording 1991

Pianist Jones is elegant, swinging and at times harmonically edgy on this powerhouse solo piano performance.


- Noah Baerman

Fred Hersch/Bill Frisell
Songs We Know
1998 Nonesuch Records 79468
Original recording 1998
Hersch and Frisell present a thorough exploration of the song. The pianist and guitarist peer into every nook and cranny, thoughtfully testing each note and phrase while still maintaining a sense of wonderment and whimsy.
Clark Terry
One on One
2000 Chesky 198
Original recording 1999
Swingin’ rendition of the song from an album filled with great duets between the trumpeter and featured pianists. This time around it is Don Friedman at the keys responding to Clark’s soaring horn.
Carmen Mcrae
Carmen Sings Monk: First Edt (Dig)
Original recording 1990
Vocalist McRae devotes this remastered CD to Monk’s music with “Blue Monk” being transformed into “Monkery’s the Blues” with lyrics by Abbey Lincoln. The sultry tone is enhanced by pianist Eric Gunnison, bassist George Mraz, drummer Al Foster, and saxophonist Clifford Jordan.

- Ben Maycock

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