International Society for Jazz Research

Thelonious Monk und der Free Jazz

Thelonious Monk und der Free Jazz


The assignment of Thelonious Monk to bebop seems at first glance to be almost self-evident. At the beginning of the forties Monk was employed as a pianist at Minton's Playhouse, the New York birthplace of bebop. This means that he belonged to the inner circle around Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, and Bud Powell. Monk's harmonic extensions found their way into the then new playing style, and his compositions were also incorporated into the bebop repertoire.

Nevertheless, from the very beginning Monk's music was primarily understood as an independent phenomenon. Monk's faltering and fragile manner did not really correspond to the playing style characterized by virtuoso fluency and practiced in its ideal-typical form on the piano by Powell. The stylistic outsider role unanimously assigned to Monk by jazz criticism during his lifetime and right through to current jazz research must have been an essential prerequisite for the later relevance of his music around 1960. The demonstration of the avantgarde potential bound up with his music forms one principal concern of the present study.

Since Monk's music, apart from a few articles, has not yet received comprehensive treatment from jazz research, the study undertaken here also makes a fundamental contribution to the understanding of his music. Knowledge about the specifically avant-garde potential in Monk cannot be derived, however, merely from occupation with his music alone; rather, it can be obtained only in connection with avant-garde developments in jazz since the fifties.

Given the different forms of free jazz and their primarily individual stamp, it necessarily follows that the present subject of investigation is to be formed not by the general further stylistic development of Monk's music but by the individual musical reception of it by important representatives of free jazz. Here Monk is not «degraded» to a forerunner; nor are the representatives of the younger generation cast in the role of mere epigones. Rather, this study follows a twofold line of investigation: The examination of the interactions between Monk and free jazz musicians brings to light both interconnections and important individual features in the music of Monk as weIl as in that of the other musicians treated.

The following criteria were of central importance in the selection of the free jazz musicians considered here:

· First, there had to be several factors pointing to a stylistic proximity to Monk's music. Primary information about this relation is provided by declarations by musicians themselves as weIl as by corresponding statements by Monk's contemporaries and on the part of jazz research. In addition, improvisations of Monk's compositions are considered, above all those by musicians who concurrently or subsequently put freer methods into practice and (in some cases) worked together with Monk.

· Second, the selection of free jazz musicians examined here produces a characteristic panorama of avant-garde jazz since the end of the fifties. Stylistically influential personalities of free jazz in the United States such as John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and Don Cherry occupy the focus as well as prominent representatives of free improvisation in Europe, from Irene Schweizer to Alexander von Schlippenbach and to Misha Mengelberg.

During the fifties John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor occupied themselves intensively with Monk. In 1957 Coltrane was a member of the Monk Quartet. In this respect Taylor was left more to his own devices; as a pianist such a path was not open to him. These musical experiences would leave their considerable mark on the further stylistic development of both Coltrane and Taylor.

It was through Taylor that Monk's music came to the attention of Steve Lacy. Lacy's performances together with Taylor, further undertakings of his own (in particular the quartet with Roswell Rudd), and his continuous collaboration over a number of months in Monk's group in 1960 made him one of the outstanding interpreters and continuators of Monk's music. Moreover, Lacy can to a certain extent be understood as a connecting link between the United States and Europe, inasmuch as he initially belonged to New York's avant-garde scene but in the second half of the sixties moved to Rome and then on to Paris.

Similar claims may also be made about Don Cherry, who moved to Europe at about the same time as Lacy. Nevertheless, the effects of Cherry's occupation with Monk, in contrast to that of Lacy, remained largely limited to the time around 1960.

Just how differently Monk's music can be understood, continued, and linked with other stylistic elements is shown by the examination of three important representatives of so-called free improvisation in Europe. In the specific cases of Schweizer, Schlippenbach, and Mengelberg, occupation with Monk has led not to musical veneration of an American idol but, on the contrary, has opened up perspectives for them in the pursuing of their own paths.

Finally, a look at the music of Dollar Brand demonstrates Monk's importance for modern developments in jazz in South Africa. The restrictions forming part of the apartheid policy forced many jazz musicians to emigrate to Europe at the beginning of the sixties, and ever since then these musicians have made important and valuable contributions to the avant-garde process there as weIl.

The far-reaching importance of Monk's music for the jazz avantgarde since the end of the fifties is shown by the musicians named above, but by no means all improvisers in the context of free jazz absorbed ideas from Monk. The recognition of this fact is also important, if only to avoid the false impression that Monk was the sole «father» of the avant-garde. The limits of Monk's sphere of influence are shown above all by the example of Ornette Coleman. In contrast to his comrade-in-arms of many years, Cherry, who in dialogue with Lacy approximated Monk's music at least for a certain period of time, Coleman refrained from doing so. He pursued fundamentally different improvisational paths.


Monk's two essential methods, repetition and hesitation, can be highlighted on a similarly abstract level as that of the concepts «tradition» and «avant-garde.»

It would seem to be obvious to see in repetition the traditional potential of Monk's music and in hesitation its avant-garde potential. Repetition is in any case essential for the continuity between past and present meant by tradition and based on transmission. In contrast, hesitation is important for the avant-garde in its exploration of new territory. Instead of resolute forging ahead, what is repeatedly required is cautious pausing, so that a feel can be developed for the path sought in previously unknown terrain.

Nevertheless, the findings of the present study suggest more nuanced connections between tradition and repetition, between hesitation and avant-garde:

Repetition is of importance for Monk's music in several different respects. It determines both the compositional design of a theme as well as the improvisations following the theme and related to it. The AABA song form still operating for Monk is not meant as such, but its internal design from a few, repeatedly recurring motifs, in part varied in minor ways. These motifs function, already in the theme as well as in the subsequent improvisation, primarily as rigidified elements. Their mostly inconspicuous character exposes them as conventional set pieces which, while providing for the overall connection, at the same time call into question a possible continuous motion or even hinder it. Accordingly, «traditional» is the thematically related improvisational style practiced by Monk. At the same time, however, he denies the tradition because he does not accelerate the further course of musical events through the repeated resumption of thematic motifs but brings it to a halt. The same applies to the immediate motif and tone repetitions especially frequent in Monk. Although their employment contributes significantly to the stylistic identity of his music and lends it a constant persistence, it is nonetheless precisely in this way that the particular musical course of events is made to stumble. The discontinuous treatment of constant elements aims less at the linking of motifs that merge together than at the isolation of sound units.

Monk's treatment of repetition exhibits an open relation to the tradition: preservation and denial over against the allegedly self-evident transmission go hand in hand.

Monk's hesitating procedure is marked by a similarly nuanced set of operations. Its presumably obvious avant-garde significance is so on called into question.

Like the repetitions, the gradual groping forward also hinders the production of a flowing musical motion. Predominant motif repetitions or immediate repetitions even represent possibilities for hesitation. The hesitant groping forward is linked inseparably to the bursting function of the repetitions.

In addition, hesitation comes to expression in Monk's manner of setting rests. Although Monk also employs the customary function of rests, namely that of the structuring of the melodic process, his rests frequently go on to contribute to the interruption of an implied flowing motion. This employment of rests typical of Monk produces gaps between the sounds and motifs used by him.

Above all the extensive employment of rests, simultaneous renunciation of virtuosity, and thinned-out harmony might make Monk's music seem to be an intentional reduction.

The hypothetical characterization of Monk's music as reduced is based on the assumption that Monk accepts previous jazz development, such as it is shown, say, in the virtuoso piano playing of James P. Johnson or Art Tatum, as a self-evident given, and then reacts to it through holding back with respect to sound density. As plausible as this assumption may seem, the relation of Monk's music to the tradition is otherwise.

The discontinuity in his music is not an end in itself; rather, it serves for concentration on a single sound or a motif. Its determination remains unclear in Monk's case until just before it is heard because he hesitates not only in the form of repetitions or rests but also when it comes to striking the note. One can already anticipate the newness of the expected sound or motif, but the new sound phenomenon seems to announce itself as something still unknown and undetermined and perhaps also rather vaguely. But does Monk really intend by this the exploration of new musical regions? The rather conventional motifs which then are actually heard and in addition are often repeated from before cause the avant-garde character of the hesitation to go over into its complete opposite. By means of hesitation Monk succeeds in bringing about not the progression into previously unknown regions but the renewal of the tradition. For in the tension of hesitation even customary sounds and motifs and the links between them lose their obviousness.

From this it results that Monk does not proceed from a preexisting stage of development but places himself in the position immediately before the emergence of certain stylistic manifestations which he then endeavors to form a new for himself. It is as if he were seeking the point of origin of a once imponderable path which in the meantime has already been trodden by others. Therefore, there is no marked fullness of sound in Monk, because such sonority presumes at least in some elements a certain obviousness of the material employed. No dense sound sequence can result from the radical calling into question of traditional givens. Monk's specific musical position between tradition and avant-garde goes along with the close interconnection between repetition and hesitation. Since Monk renders vivid the originality of stylistic developments, his music in special measure allows others to continue it in their own individual ways.


It is precisely in relation to the central aspects of repetition and hesitation that the further development of Monk's music by prominent protagonists of free jazz can be sketched as follows:

John Coltrane obtains the energy for the intensity of the extreme sound density of his music from immediate and predominant motif repetitions. With his arpeggio-like and glissando-like motifs, the technique of multiphonics, and the voluminous single tone going along with it, he operates in the vicinity of the cluster, which became a fundamental principle for Cecil Taylor both in matters of sound and rhythm. Taylor's sound clusters are based, as in Coltrane, essentially on motivic repetitions and, in addition, on a peculiar motion style through which Taylor transforms Monk's hesitation into a breakneck head-over-heels.

In contrast, Steve Lacy appropriates precisely Monk's manner of repetition and hesitation. The consistency with which Lacy transfers Monk's procedure to the soprano saxophone, leads to a unique radical stamping, inasmuch as the inevitable monophony and certain fragility in the sound of the soprano saxophone further intensify the fragility of Monk's music.

Exchange with Lacy occasions Don Cherry to expand his previous improvisational style. Although the associative progress from motif to motif, such as Cherry elaborated it in collaboration with Ornette Coleman, continues to be fundamental, the immediate motif and tone repetitions inspired by Monk and Lacy repeatedly enable a pausing concentrated on the sound element.

Repetitions in Monk's manner open up to Dollar Brand a unique stylistic path between South African mbaqanga and Afro-American jazz. The discontinuous function of immediate or predominant repetitions enables Brand to transform decisively the continuous ostinatos of the mbaqanga.

Direct occupation with Monk's music as weIl as the influence of the previously mentioned musicians stamped decisively by him are of significance for the avant-garde reception of his music in Europe. Thus, Irene Schweizer also draws on Dollar Brand and Cecil Taylor. She confirms her occupation with Brand in her employment of immediate repetitions extending to ostinatos. For a time she took over the motion style of the head-over-heels from Taylor, but since the beginning of the seventies she has again distanced herself somewhat from it through recourse to Monk's hesitant stumbling. The back-and-forth between Monk's hesitation and Taylor's head-over-heels forms the foundation for Alexander von Schlippenbach in his own music.

Finally, Misha Mengelberg radicalizes Monk's hesitation in such a way that he not only eliminates, like Monk, the self-evidence of traditional stylistic developments but also even frequently sojourns in stylistically indeterminate terrain. Formulated somewhat exaggeratedly, in Mengelberg it no longer even seems self-evident that the pressing of a key will lead to the sounding of a piano note. Or, to formulate it even more pointedly: Will he even touch the key at all?