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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

Music and Lyrics Analysis

Musical analysis of “Blue Monk”

Original KeyBb major
Form12-bar blues
TonalityMajor
Movementascending four-note chromatic scales, followed by a short chromatic “turn” that leaps down a seventh, then up a sixth, preceded by a chromatic lower neighbor.

Comments     (assumed background)

According to Thelonious Monk, one of his influences was Ferd “Jelly Roll” Morton. This tune, with its lyrical leaps, chromatic embellishments, and quasi-ragtime syncopations, is certainly suggestive of Morton. The “blues” progression here is an interesting variation in which Monk inserts an extra IV in measure 2 and follows the IV in measure 5 with a diminished seventh chord a half-step higher in measure 6 (being a ct°7 of the tonic, a standard harmonic device). This use of the °7 chord works very nicely with the strongly chromatic nature of the melody.
K. J. McElrath - Musicologist for JazzStandards.com

Check out K. J. McElrath’s book of Jazz Standards Guide Tone Lines at his web site (www.bardicle.com).
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Music & Lyrics Analysis
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Jazz History Notes
Getting Started
CD Recommendations
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By the Same Writers...

Jazz History Notes

There are approximately 30 different versions of Thelonious Monk performing his composition “Blue Monk.” They range from solo to big band, with an incredible array of musical talent. Here is just a sampling:

A recently issued 1957 recording features tenor saxophonist John Coltrane with Monk. The results, as might be expected, are a treat, not only for the playing but for the excellent recording quality.

A 1958 live recording from New York’s Five Spot has Johnny Griffin on tenor, whose masterful approach makes an interesting comparison to Coltrane’s .

A regular with Monk’s quartet for many years, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse was on hand for two fine live recordings. The first, from the Newport Jazz Festival in 1963, has clarinetist Pee Wee Russell guesting. Long regarded (to his displeasure) as a “Dixieland” musician, Russell’s playing on this session is remarkably avant-garde. The next year found the quartet at the It Club in Los Angeles with the recording capturing the group in fine fettle.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian


Thelonious Monk/John Coltrane
Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane
Blue Note Records 35173

iTunes
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious in Action: Recorded at the Five Spot Cafe
Original Jazz Classics 103

iTunes
Thelonious Monk
Monk at Newport 1963 and 1965
Sony 63905

Thelonious Monk
Live at the It Club
Sony 65288

Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “Blue Monk.” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

Thelonious Monk’s 1954 trio recording of his “Blue Monk” (Thelonious Monk Trio) is the first of his many recordings of the song and is a definitive example of his piano style. His live recording from 1958 with Johnny Griffin (Thelonious Action) is also fabulous and is arguably the first to present the song’s melody in its definitive form, that is the form that most musicians have subsequently used as their point of reference. Abbey Lincoln’s 1961 recording (Straight Ahead), meanwhile, introduces her lyrical contributions to the song.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk Trio: Rudy Van Gelder Remasters
Prestige
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.

iTunes
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.

iTunes
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.

iTunes
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.

iTunes
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

iTunes
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.

iTunes

- 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.
iTunes
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.
iTunes
Carmen Mcrae
Carmen Sings Monk: First Edt (Dig)
RCA
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.
iTunes

- Ben Maycock

Written by the Same Composer(s)...
This section shows the jazz standards written by the same writing team.

Thelonious Monk

Year Rank Title
1951 163 Straight No Chaser
1954 185 Blue Monk
1958 347 Rhythm-A-Ning
1945 355 Ruby My Dear
1944 433 52nd Street Theme
1951 475 Ask Me Now
1948 484 Misterioso
1956 494 Pannonica
1947 495 In Walked Bud
1948 497 Evidence
1946 542 Monk's Mood
1952 647 Trinkle Tinkle
1952 706 Reflections
1962 798 Monk's Dream
1947 876 Off Minor

Coleman Hawkins and Thelonious Monk

Year Rank Title
1947 625 I Mean You

Denzil Best and Thelonious Monk

Year Rank Title
1952 321 Bemsha Swing

Mike Ferro and Thelonious Monk

Year Rank Title
1944 313 Well You Needn't

Bernie Hanighen, Thelonious Monk and Cootie Williams

Year Rank Title
1944 4 'Round Midnight

Kenneth S Clark, Thelonious Monk and Cootie Williams

Year Rank Title
1942 346 Epistrophy

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