Thelonious Monk Unisex T-Shirt
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Thelonious Monk – Live At Berliner Jazztage (1969)
Thelonious Sphere Monk (/θəˈloʊniəs/, October 10, 1917 – February 17, 1982) was an American jazz pianist and composer. He had a unique improvisational style and made numerous contributions to the standard jazz repertoire, including “‘Round Midnight“, “Blue Monk“, “Straight, No Chaser“, “Ruby, My Dear“, “In Walked Bud“, and “Well, You Needn’t“. Monk is the second-most-recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington.
Monk’s compositions and improvisations feature dissonances and angular melodic twists and are consistent with his unorthodox approach to the piano, which combined a highly percussive attack with abrupt, dramatic use of switched key releases, silences, and hesitations. His style was not universally appreciated; the poet and jazz critic Philip Larkin dismissed him as “the elephant on the keyboard”.
Monk was renowned for a distinct look which included suits, hats, and sunglasses. He was also noted for an idiosyncratic habit during performances: while other musicians continued playing, Monk would stop, stand up, and dance for a few moments before returning to the piano.
Thelonious Monk: American Composer
Thelonious Sphere Monk was born two years after his sister Marion on October 10, 1917, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and was the son of Thelonious and Barbara Monk. His poorly written birth certificate misspelled his first name as “Thelious” or “Thelius”. It also did not list his middle name, taken from his maternal grandfather, Sphere Batts. His brother, Thomas, was born in January 1920. In 1922, the family moved to the Phipps Houses, 243 West 63rd Street, in Manhattan, New York City; the neighborhood was known as San Juan Hill because of the many African-American veterans of the Spanish–American War who lived there (urban renewal displaced the long-time residents of the community, who saw their neighborhood replaced by the Amsterdam Housing Projects and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, though the Phipps Houses remained). Monk started playing the piano at the age of six, taking lessons from a neighbor, Alberta Simmons, whose own performing career was cut short by raising children and who taught him stride playing in the style of Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Eubie Blake. His mother also taught him to play some hymns, and he would sometimes accompany her singing at church. He attended Stuyvesant High School, a public school for gifted students, but did not graduate.
1934–1946: Early playing career
At 17, Monk toured with an evangelist, playing the church organ, and in his late teens he began to find work playing jazz. In the early to mid-1940s, he was the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse, a Manhattan nightclub. Much of Monk’s style (in the Harlem stride tradition) was developed during his time at Minton’s, when he participated in after-hours cutting contests, which featured many leading jazz soloists of the time. Monk’s musical work at Minton’s was crucial in the formulation of bebop, which would be furthered by other artists, including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, Charlie Parker, and, later, Miles Davis. Monk is believed to be the pianist featured on recordings Jerry Newman made around 1941 at the club. Monk’s style at this time was later described as “hard-swinging,” with the addition of runs in the style of Art Tatum. Monk’s stated influences included Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and other early stride pianists. According to the documentary Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, Monk lived in the same neighborhood in New York City as Johnson and knew him as a teenager.
Mary Lou Williams, who mentored Monk and his contemporaries, spoke of Monk’s rich inventiveness in this period, and how such invention was vital for musicians, since at the time it was common for fellow musicians to incorporate overheard musical ideas into their own works without giving due credit. “So, the boppers worked out a music that was hard to steal. I’ll say this for the ‘leeches,’ though: they tried. I’ve seen them in Minton’s busily writing on their shirt cuffs or scribbling on the tablecloth. And even our own guys, I’m afraid, did not give Monk the credit he had coming. Why, they even stole his idea of the beret and bop glasses.”
In 1944 Monk made his first studio recordings with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet. Hawkins was one of the earliest established jazz musicians to promote Monk, and the pianist later returned the favor by inviting Hawkins to join him on a 1957 session with John Coltrane.
1947–1952: Lorraine Gordon
In 1947, Ike Quebec introduced Monk to Lorraine Gordon and her first husband, Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note Records. From then on, Gordon preached his genius to the jazz world with unrelenting passion. Shortly after meeting Gordon and Lion, Monk made his first recordings as a leader for Blue Note (later anthologized on Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1), which showcased his talents as a composer of original melodies for improvisation. Monk married Nellie Smith the same year, and on December 27, 1949 the couple had a son, T. S. Monk (called Toot), who became a jazz drummer. A daughter, Barbara (affectionately known as Boo-Boo), was born on September 5, 1953 and died of cancer in 1984.
In her autobiography, Gordon spoke of the utter lack of interest in Monk’s recordings, which translated to poor sales. “I went to Harlem and those record stores didn’t want Monk or me. I’ll never forget one particular owner, I can still see him and his store on Seventh Avenue and 125th Street. ‘He can’t play lady, what are you doing up here? The guy has two left hands.’ ‘You just wait,’ I’d say. ‘This man’s a genius, you don’t know anything.'”
Due to Monk’s reticence, Gordon became his mouthpiece to the public. In February 1948, she wrote to Ralph Ingersoll, the editor of the newspaper PM, and described Monk as “a genius living here in the heart of New York, whom nobody knows”. As a result, one of PM‘s best writers visited Monk to do a feature on him, but Monk wouldn’t speak to the reporter unless Gordon was in the room with him. In September of the same year, Lorraine approached Max Gordon, the owner and founder of the Village Vanguard jazz club, and secured Monk his first gig there. Monk was showcased at the club for a week, but not a single person came.
In August 1951, New York City police searched a parked car occupied by Monk and his friend Bud Powell. They found narcotics in the car, presumed to have belonged to Powell. Monk refused to testify against his friend, so the police confiscated his New York City Cabaret Card. Without this, Monk was nominally unable to play in any New York venue where liquor was served. Although this severely restricted his ability to perform for several years, a coterie of musicians led by Randy Weston introduced Monk to Black-owned bars and clubs in Brooklyn that flouted the law, enabling the pianist to play little-advertised, one-night engagements throughout the borough with a modicum of regularity. Monk spent most of the early and mid-1950s composing, recording at Blue Note, and performing at theaters, outer borough clubs and out-of-town venues.
1952–1954: Prestige Records
After intermittent recording sessions for Blue Note from 1947 to 1952, Monk was under contract to Prestige Records for the following two years. With Prestige, he cut several highly significant, but at the time under-recognized, albums, including collaborations with the saxophonist Sonny Rollins and the drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach. In 1954, Monk participated in a Christmas Eve session, which produced most of the albums Bags’ Groove and Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants by Davis. In his autobiography, Miles, Davis claimed that the alleged anger and tension between them did not take place and that the claims of blows being exchanged were “rumors” and a “misunderstanding”.
In 1954, Monk paid his first visit to Paris. As well as performing at concerts, he recorded a solo piano session for French radio (later issued as an album by Disques Vogue). Backstage, Mary Lou Williams introduced him to Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter, a member of the Rothschild family and a patroness of several New York City jazz musicians. She was a close friend for the rest of Monk’s life: she “served as a surrogate wife right alongside Monk’s equally devoted actual wife, Nellie” and “paid Monk’s bills, dragged him to an endless array of doctors, put him and his family up in her own home and, when necessary, helped Nellie institutionalize him. In 1958 Monk and the baroness were stopped by the police in Delaware. When a small amount of marijuana was discovered, she took the rap for her friend and even served a few nights in jail.”
1955–1961: Riverside Records
By the time of his signing to Riverside, Monk was highly regarded by his peers and by some critics, but his records remained poor sellers and his music was still regarded as too “difficult” for more mainstream acceptance. Indeed, with Monk’s consent, Riverside had managed to buy out his previous Prestige contract for a mere $108.24. He willingly recorded two albums of jazz standards as a means of increasing his profile: Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington (1955) and The Unique Thelonious Monk (1956).
On Brilliant Corners, recorded in late 1956, Monk mainly performed his own music. The complex title track, which featured Rollins, was so difficult to play that the final version had to be edited together from multiple takes. The album, however, was largely regarded as the first commercial success for Monk.
After having his cabaret card restored, Monk relaunched his New York career with a landmark six-month residency at the Five Spot Cafe in the East Village neighborhood of New York beginning in June 1957, leading a quartet with John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Wilbur Ware on bass, and Shadow Wilson on drums. Little of this group’s music was documented owing to contractual problems: Coltrane was signed to Prestige at the time, but Monk refused to return to his former label. One studio session by the quartet was made for Riverside, three tunes which were not released until 1961 by the subsidiary label Jazzland along with outtakes from a larger group recording with Coltrane and Hawkins, those results appearing in 1957 as the album Monk’s Music. An amateur fan recording from the Five Spot (a later September 1958 reunion with Coltrane sitting in for Johnny Griffin) was issued on Blue Note in 1993; and a pristine quality recording of the quartet performing at a Carnegie Hall concert on November 29 was recorded in high fidelity by Voice of America engineers, rediscovered in the collection of the Library of Congress in 2005 and released by Blue Note.
“Crepuscule with Nellie,” recorded in 1957, “was Monk’s only, what’s called through-composed composition, meaning that there is no improvising. It is Monk’s concerto, if you will, and in some ways it speaks for itself. But he wrote it very, very carefully and very deliberately and really struggled to make it sound the way it sounds. [… I]t was his love song for Nellie,” said the author of the “definitive Monk biography,” Robin Kelley.
The Five Spot residency ended Christmas 1957; Coltrane left to rejoin Davis’s group, and the band was effectively disbanded. Monk did not form another long-term band until June 1958 when he began a second residency at the Five Spot, again with a quartet, this time with Griffin (and later Charlie Rouse) on tenor, Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums.
On October 15, 1958, en route to a week-long engagement for the quartet at the Comedy Club in Baltimore, Maryland, Monk and de Koenigswarter were detained by police in Wilmington, Delaware. When Monk refused to answer the policemen’s questions or cooperate with them, they beat him with a blackjack. Although the police were authorized to search the vehicle and found narcotics in suitcases held in the trunk of the Baroness’s car, Judge Christie of the Delaware Superior Court ruled that the unlawful detention of the pair, and the beating of Monk, rendered the consent to the search void as given under duress.
Thelonious Monk – Live In Paris 1964
Thelonious Monk – Monk’s Music (1957/2004)
Thelonious Monk’s 25 Tips for Musicians
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