“Thelonious Monk – American Composer” is a 1991 film and 2002
DVD release, on the BMG Special Products label. Like the Sarah
Vaughan DVD I discussed earlier, this disc is also a part of the
“Masters of American Music” series.
This film presents a thorough portrait of Thelonious Monk
(1917-1982), using interview footage filmed at Minton’s Playhouse
in New York City, and other locales. Monk is discussed by his son,
Thelonious Jr., his older sister, Marion, and record producer,
Orrin Keepnews. The musicians interviewed include pianists Randy
Weston and Billy Taylor, as well as drummer Ben Riley, who
played with Monk for many years.
Thelonious Monk was one of the true giants of Jazz, not only as a
pianist with an original style, but also as one of the great composers
of the medium. His playing style was considered unorthodox for the
early 1940’s, as he used dissonance and angular melodies, coupled
with a “stride” playing technique. This idiosyncratic style was highly
influential, and used in many “cutting sessions” at Minton’s with
fellow Bebop pioneers, such as Kenny Clarke, Charlie Parker and
Dizzy Gillespie. Creativity and bold innovation were the watchwords
then, as they were inventing a new form of music.
Monk’s music and playing style caught on, and he became famous,
eventually making the cover of Time magazine. He was one of only
four or five Jazz musicians to receive this honor. The valuable concert
footage in this film even showcases a dance Monk would often
perform during a solo by someone else in his combo, such as
The portrait of Thelonious Monk as a family man was primarily
provided by his son, Thelonious, Jr., who shared photos of Monk
with his wife and two children. The invaluable thoughts on this DVD
were those expressed by the aforementioned musicians, who either
worked with Monk or witnessed his forging of a new musical
language. His playing style was unique, and it was interesting
to observe the comparisons of it with that of his virtuosic
Bebop contemporary, pianist Bud Powell.
At only 59 minutes in length, “Thelonious Monk – American Composer”
is worth the time of anyone interested in learning about one of the
most important artists in the history of Jazz. I look forward to watching
other DVDs in this series.