With his penchant for natty headgear – which ranged from trilbies, flat caps and fedoras, to berets, conical Asian “coolie” hats and skullcaps – Thelonious Sphere Monk always cut a distinctive and sartorially arresting figure. It was his music, though, that brought him even more attention and helped to write his name into the history books. Though he rose to fame in the bebop era during the mid-40s, stylistically, Monk ploughed a unique furrow that made him stand out from the crowd. In melodic and harmonic terms, he developed a singular vocabulary: one that consisted of angular melodies, often defined by large intervallic leaps, jarring dissonances, and chromatic cluster chords; rhythmically, he combined elements from the jaunty stride piano style of the early jazz epoch with swing-era syncopation. Much of this brilliance is explored in the Thelonious Monk Prestige recordings, made in the early 50s.
From his very first solo recordings – for Blue Note, in the late 40s – it was clear that Thelonious Monk was an exciting new original voice in jazz, one who stood apart from other musicians as he created his own distinctive and very personal universe. Monk’s music wasn’t without its detractors, though, and his compositions were often misunderstood and even ridiculed. But Monk is no longer dismissed as an eccentric maverick – rather, he is revered as one of jazz’s most innovative musicians and significant composers.
10 October 2017 marked the centenary of Thelonious Monk’s birth. To celebrate that momentous occasion, Craft Recordings issued a vinyl box set of 10” LPs that were first issued by Bob Weinstock’s indie jazz label, Prestige, during the years 1952-54. The stylishly-packaged Complete Prestige 10” LP Collection consists of five complete albums, Thelonious, Thelonious Monk Quintet Blows For LP, Thelonious Monk Quintet, Thelonious Monk Plays and Sonny Rollins And Thelonious Monk, presented in their original early 50s 10” LP format.
Thelonious Monk’s first Prestige recording session
Prestige boss Bob Weinstock, who founded the New York-based label in 1949, was intrigued by Monk when he heard him play with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, and brought the pianist to the label on 21 August 1952, signing him to a three-year contract.
The first Thelonious Monk Prestige session happened two months later, on 15 October 1952, a few days following the pianist’s 35th birthday, at studio boffin/engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s Hackensack studio in New Jersey. Monk led a trio comprising Barbados-born, Brooklyn-raised bassist Gary Mapp (who had a day job as a policeman) and percussion powerhouse Art Blakey, then 33, who would go on to co-found The Jazz Messengers two years later. The trio recorded four cuts all as first takes, including three Monk originals: ‘Monk’s Dream’, which was a brand-new song, plus ‘Little Rootie Tootie’ and the Latin-inflected ‘Bye-Ya’, two tunes that Monk had written some years previously but never recorded before. Rounding out the session was Monk’s reading of the standard ‘Sweet And Lovely’.
Monk returned to the studio on 18 December 1952 to add more tracks to what would become his first 10” LP for Prestige, Thelonious. The session reunited him with Gary Mapp but replaced Blakey with another rising drum master, Max Roach. The trio recorded four more sides, ‘Trinkle Tinkle’, the Caribbean-tinged ‘Bemsha Swing’ and the ballad ‘Reflections’, plus a sardonic rendition of ‘These Foolish Things’. On its release, the first Thelonious Monk Prestige 10” (which was revamped in 1954 as a 12” LP called Thelonious Monk Trio) didn’t thrill most of the critics, but it has gone on to be regarded as one of Monk’s key foundation stones.
Later sessions: The Thelonious Monk Quintet takes flight
His second 10” LP for Prestige, Thelonious Monk Quintet Blows For LP, was recorded in New York City on Friday, 13 November 1953. Initially, the day lived up to superstitious associations with bad luck: trumpeter Ray Copeland fell ill and had to be replaced by a French horn player, Julius Watkins; then, to cap it all, Monk and saxophonist Sonny Rollins were involved in a car accident on the way to the studio. Fortunately, both were left unscathed, but were an hour late for the session, where they were joined by a rhythm section comprised of bassist Percy Heath and drummer Willie Jones.
The quintet recorded three tracks together: the jaunty swingers ‘Let’s Call This’ and ‘Think Of’, and, commemorating the ominous date of the recording session, ‘Friday The Thirteenth’, a particularly discordant piece built on a descending series of chords. It was a session that highlighted Monk and Rollins’ compatibility as collaborators, with the latter demonstrating how skilfully he could navigate the pianist’s potentially tricky melodies and chord changes (Rollins was Monk’s favourite saxophonist).
Ray Copeland returned to the studio, alongside saxophonist Frank Foster, bassist Curly Russell and drummer Art Blakey, for the next Thelonious Monk Prestige studio session, in May 1954, which produced four tracks – three Monk tunes (‘We See’, ‘Locomotive’ and ‘Hackensack’) and a startlingly radical remake of the standard ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’. They were released as a 10” LP titled Thelonious Monk Quintet (later expanded to six cuts when it was reissued as a 12” LP).
Blakey was retained for Monk’s next Prestige LP, the four-track Thelonious Monk Plays, whose centrepiece was one of the pianist’s most enduring and popular numbers, ‘Blue Monk’. Another Monk classic, ‘Nutty’, was also a highlight. The LP was rounded out with Monk’s own ‘Work’ and the jazz standard ‘Just A Gigolo’, a song previously recorded by Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and Art Tatum.
Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins
The final Thelonious Monk Prestige 10” was Thelonious Monk And Sonny Rollins. The music recorded for the album was originally scheduled as a Prestige session in Rollins’ name, in order to showcase the young saxophonist in a quartet setting (with bassist Tommy Potter and drummer Art Taylor in attendance). But when his pianist, Elmo Hope, got arrested for drugs possession, Monk came in to deputise; because of Monk’s stature and Rollins’ high regard for him, the pair shared the billing when the album was released.
First released in 1954, the album originally consisted of three tracks (later expanded when rebooted as a 12” LP), all of which were standards (‘The Way You Look Tonight’, ‘I Want To Be Happy’ and ‘More Than You Know’). The recordings showed how Monk could cleverly refashion other people’s material in his own image while retaining the spirits of the original tunes. Sonny Rollins, who was just 24 at the time, impresses with the melodic inventiveness of his improvisations.
The legacy of Thelonious Monk’s Prestige recordings
After his three-year tenure with Prestige, Monk moved on to the enjoy long and fruitful stints at first Riverside and then, in the early 60s, Columbia. But as The Complete Prestige 10” LP Collection demonstrates, Monk’s sides for Bob Weinstock’s company represented significant early steps in his career and cemented his place as an important and original voice in jazz.
Over 60 years on from when they were first recorded, the Thelonious Monk Prestige records sound as fresh and vibrant as ever, which is due not just to the timelessness of Monk’s music – which still sounds fiercely modern – but also to Joe Tarantino’s top-notch remastering. The Complete Prestige 10” LP Collection also replicates the artwork and look of the original 10” LPs, right down to their sleeves and record labels. Erudite Monk historian, the esteemed Robin DG Kelley (whose 2009 book, Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times Of An American Original, is regarded as the definitive biography of the pianist) has penned authoritative liner notes for the box set, which will also be available digitally in hi-res audio, as well as the standard download format.
The Complete Prestige 10” LP Collection can be bought here.