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Demystifying the Genius of Thelonious Monk

October 1, 2022 | by Marcus Crowder

Thelonious Monk (photo by William Gottlieb)

Journalist Marcus Crowder previews our annual birthday celebration of Thelonious Monk (Oct 5–10 Festival), speaking to Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley and NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron, both of whom will be featured in special broadcasts available only on SFJAZZ At Home.

The abundant mythology surrounding Thelonious Sphere Monk starts with his extraordinary name. Given him by his parents when he was born Oct. 10, 1917 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, it was “manufactured” the way names often are — Thelonious was his father’s first name and Sphere came from his maternal grandfather. Yet the surreal originality of the name now feels as organic as his choppy swinging rhythms and sophisticated hummable melodies. You know Monk’s music when you hear it, even if you can’t name the tune.

SFJAZZ will amplify the enduring legacy of Monk’s music with a weeklong Thelonious Monk Festival (October 5–10), including two special broadcasts. The week has become a unique annual event celebrating the legacy and music of Monk with a diverse cohort of artists in original programs each season, leading to a birthday celebration concert on Oct. 10. Opening the celebration will be a Listening Party (in-person and streaming live) with award-winning Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley, who will be joined in conversation by Executive Artistic Director Randall Kline. Kelley’s 2009 Monk biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, stands as the definitive account of Monk’s life and in it Kelley dispels many myths associated with Monk’s creativity and behavior. This year’s festival features Monk’s music in a variety of musical settings including organ (Gregory Lewis), guitar (Miles Okazaki), and piano (Edward Simon).

Concluding the week is the birthday concert featuring pianist and 2010 NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron and his trio augmented by special guest pianist Benny Green. Barron is not only a jazz master but an accomplished Monk interpreter, having performed for decades with Monk associates — saxophonist Charlie Rouse and drummer Ben Riley — in the Monk-centric band Sphere. Pianist Green, a Berkeley native, has become a soulful hard swinging classicist who developed an affinity for Monk from veteran mentors such as legendary bassist Ray Brown. Both the Barron Trio with Benny Green concert and the Robin Kelley Listening Party are live and streaming events, part of the organization’s newly launched SFJAZZ At Home program.

Robin D.G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

Kelley, a history professor at UCLA, spent nearly 15 years researching and writing his biography of Monk. The pianist’s estate granted him access to little seen documents which helped to fill in an exceptionally detailed portrait of the often misunderstood creative artist. Kelley feels the image of Monk as an erratic savant or natural genius denies him the deeper consideration of his earned work ethic and the artistic rigor he continually demonstrated.

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