Written by Patrick Jarenwattananon from National Public Radio
Wednesday is the birthday anniversary of pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. Thursday is the birthday anniversary of drummer Art Blakey. The two were born two years and one day apart: Monk in 1917, Blakey in 1919. The two are among the most influential musicians in jazz history, and — appropriately, somehow — were close colleagues throughout their careers. In fact, Blakey played on Monk’s first three recording sessions as a bandleader.
This video is the best YouTube clip I could find of Monk and Blakey together; it’s from a 1971 all-star world tour. Dizzy Gillespie, prominently, plays trumpet; Sonny Stitt is on alto sax; Kai Winding plays trombone; Al McKibbon is the bassist. The band, billed as Giants of Jazz, is playing “Round Midnight,” probably Monk’s most famous composition.
Soon after this show, Monk would make his final studio recording. Blakey was there, too.
There are many other recordings featuring both Monk and Blakey, but I’d briefly like to point out the first and last. As Robin D.G. Kelley documents in his excellent biography of Monk, there was a touch of a mentor-protege relationship between Monk and Blakey at first: Monk and fellow pianist Bud Powell used to take Blakey to jam sessions around New York. When the opportunity first arose for Monk to document his vision on wax, Blakey was asked to do the gig.
So in October 1947, a few days after turning 30, Monk went into the studio for Blue Note Records with horns and a rhythm section. It went so well that Blue Note asked Monk to come back nine days later for a trio recording, and then about a month after that brought a quintet back for even more. Blakey did all of those dates, which are today available on the Genius of Modern Music collections.
Fast forward 24 years. Blakey has been working primarily with his own band, known as the Jazz Messengers, for a number of years. (In 1957, Monk even recorded as a featured sideman with Blakey’s band.) Monk has achieved a measure of mainstream success, having previously been placed on the cover of Time magazine and having made several records for Columbia Records. But times in the jazz business weren’t great, and as Kelley documents, Monk wasn’t making enough money with his own quartet. So, despite it taking a severe toll on his health, Monk agreed to do the Giants of Jazz tour, as did Blakey.
“Round Midnight” was one of the few Monk tunes on the set lists. (Coincidentally, Dizzy Gillespie came up with the introduction and the idea for the closing cadenza to the piece around 1945; Monk would later adopt it when he played the piece himself.) So when a British record producer invited him to the studio after the final Giants of Jazz show in London, Monk took the opportunity to do some of his own material. In addition to a few standards and improvised blues, he went back through his extensive catalog of material.
Monk put down a solo session, and then played trio with Blakey and bassist McKibbon. You can hear the results in the three CDs which comprise The Complete London Collection. (It’s out of print, but you can grab the individual volumes or find used copies of the box set, or eBay for the reissue put out by Mosaic Records.) The liner-note writer Brian Priestley observes:
It has been said often enough that Blakey is the ideal drummer for Monk, and one has only to hear them together again after all this time to realize the truth of the statement. If Blakey at times seems to push the pianist almost too hard, that is in fact the nature of their musical relationship. And, throughout the session, Blakey appeared to be vying with the producer in alternately cajoling and coercing Monk into fulfilling various requests from the small invited audience.
I’ll close this short narrative with three notes. First, if you do investigate this London recording session, check out the solo recordings, too, highly recommended by a few very good pianists. Second, another acknowledgement that much more of this can be found in Kelley’s biography, called Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. Every single page floors me with how much work went into documenting every single detail. In fact, Kelley tracked down an interview with McKibbon where he openly admitted he didn’t remember some chord changes to several tunes Monk called that day in London.
Finally, when Priestley writes “after all this time,” he meant that it had been 14 years since Monk and Blakey recorded together. Such was Blakey’s deep love of Monk’s music that he had long ago internalized these rhythmically tricky tunes and could recall them almost impromptu for his early mentor. Thursday, we’ll get into some of the musicians Blakey mentored in his own time.