Laurent De Wilde, in his book Monk, characterizes Monk’s music with haunting imagery: “Monk’s music can neither be classified nor assimilated. Not because it is revolutionary, which isn’t a reason in itself, but because it’s like a rock thrown into a pond which immediately sinks and disappears. You watch it going down, and you don’t know whether to keep your eye on the sinking mass, or to contemplate the concentric ripples of the tremors.”
In his book Jazz Styles: History and Analysis, Mark C. Gridley says more specifically, “Monk’s tunes have a logic and symmetry all their own. Unlike the tunes of many composers, his are so perfectly structured and concise that they cannot withstand tampering.... Monk employed simple compositional devices with very original results. His ‘Straight, No Chaser’ involves basically only one idea played again and again, each time in a different part of the measure and with a different ending. The shifting accents reflect a craftsmanship which can produce depth in simplicity. The melody is an ingenious invention set atop the twelve-bar blues chord progression.”
Monk first recorded “Straight, No Chaser” on July 23, 1951, with a quintet featuring Sahib Shihab on alto sax, Milt Jackson on vibes, Al McKibbon on bass, and Art Blakey on drums. Thomas Owens in his book Bebop: The Music and Its Players says, “But for all their formal simplicity, Monk’s meticulously crafted pieces typically contain one or more surprises for the unwary player. In the blues ‘Straight, No Chaser,’ the surprise is the evolving nature of the main motive; at first it is a five-note motive starting just before beat 1, then it is a seven-note motive starting just before beat 4, elsewhere it is a four-note motive, and so on.”
Gary Giddins in his book Visions of Jazz: The First Century says, “Columbia has also posthumously released unedited editions of albums formerly issued with excised or abridged solos....The CD version of ‘Straight No Chaser’ is more involving than the original, not least because [Charlie] Rouse’s restored solos now make sense (he was in top form at that session).” The recording was made in June, 1959, and the quintet included Thad Jones on cornet, Sam Jones on bass, and Art Taylor on drums.
For her 1990 release Carmen Sings Monk, vocalist Carmen McRae recorded “Straight, No Chaser” and renamed “Get It Straight” with lyrics by Sally Swisher. Vocalist/pianist Karrin Allyson also recorded it as part of a Monk medley which included “Blue Monk” (retitled “Monkery’s The Blues” with lyrics by Abbey Lincoln) and “You Know Who/I Mean You” with lyrics by Jon Hendricks.
Swisher’s lyrics describe Monk’s tenacity in regard to his music:
You gotta be on
You gotta be strong
The time is here
So trust your life to your ear
Don’t wait for no one
In Stuart Troup’s liner notes to the McRae album he explains the title changes: “The reason for these title changes is simply insistence by the music publishers, since the instrumental versions have become part of a separate Monk literature.”
Miles Davis’ 1958 sextet recording Milestones, featuring Cannonball Adderley, contains a marvelous version of “Straight, No Chaser” which went a long way in establishing recognition for the Monk composition, also recorded by Oscar Peterson, Chet Baker, Bill Evans, and Gil Evans. The composition remains a favorite among contemporary musicians. It’s been recorded by pianists Jessica Williams, Kenny Drew, Jr., Chick Corea, and Eddie Higgins; guitarists Charlie Byrd and Larry Coryell; saxophonists Bud Shank and Bennie Wallace; and Bob Florence Limited Edition.
Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser is the title of a 1988 film biography of Monk which combines concert and off-stage footage by Christian Blackwood taken in 1967-68, interviews with family and friends, and archive footage of Monk’s contemporaries.