08 May 2008


Monk's Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making
Gabriel Solis

Thelonious Monk is a curious figure in jazz history. Revered by his peers and other musicians, he did not receive the recognition he deserved from a mainstream audience until the 1960s, when he appeared on the cover of Time and was able to play regularly in the New York jazz scene again after a forced hiatus related to legal troubles. This was a full twenty years after he made his debut on the New York scene, playing in bands with Cootie Williams and Coleman Hawkins, and taking part in the jam sessions with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Christian, among others, at Minton's Playhouse where bebop was developed. It is not surprising, though, that it took awhile for the public to fully appreciate Monk, being that he was the supreme iconoclast of modern jazz. While he was often referred to as the High Priest of Bop, his own style was too unique to be lumped in with bebop, and most piano players of his day developed a style more closely related to Bud Powell's style than Monk's.

Ask any musician or jazz fan today about Monk, though, and you will likely hear that Monk is a seminal influence on most jazz musicians who came after him, and that his own idiosyncratic style is something that any jazz musician must contend with at some point in his or her musical development. In his provocative new study, Monk's Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making, musicologist Gabriel Solis examines the transformation of opinion surrounding Monk's music, and how jazz musicians of all stripes utilize Monk's music in the formation of both their own voice and competing jazz traditions. Though he begins with a cursory review of Monk's life, Solis' book is less about Monk and more about the way his jazz musicians engage with past masters in order to cultivate a personal style which drives the music forward. Solis uses the music of Thelonious Monk to demonstrate how jazz musicians make music which is "conscious of the past while simultaneously seeking to develop its impact on the present."

Solis is masterful in his analysis of recorded performances of Monk's music from artists across a broad range of styles, including Wynton Marsalis, Danilo Perez, and The Art Ensemble of Chicago. Solis takes the analysis further by placing Monk's music in the context of the debate between mainstream traditionalists like Marsalis and the avant garde over the definition of jazz and the role of tradition in jazz. Because Monk was an iconoclast in his own time whose ideas were later adopted and examined by a wide variety of musicians, it seems quite logical to Solis that Marsalis can claim Monk as a pillar of The Jazz Tradition, while other artists outside the jazz musician can argue that Monk is the type of artist whose existence negates a unified jazz tradition. Solis leaves the reader with a nuanced understanding of the mainstream-avant garde debate, and uses performances of Monk to illustrate the complexities of the debate.

Solis does not escape this review unscathed, though. One of his strong points is his multidisciplinary approach to jazz studies. Take a look at Solis' bibliography, and you will find Hegel, Foucault, and Erik Erikson scattered in with the usual jazz studies fare. However, while Solis can handily parse and analyze jazz musicians and their work, he has more trouble digesting Foucault. Despite this shortcoming, Solis has made a strong opening statement in his first book. He is an original thinker who can push the still-nascent field of jazz studies into new arenas and dimensions, and Monk's Music is illustrative of his academic potential, in addition to being a solid work of scholarship.

1 comment:

Jaybriel said...

Hey David,

I just ran across this review, and wanted to thank you for the kind words!

All best,