VIP Thelonious Monk

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Thelonious Monk (October 10, 1917 - February 17, 1982)

Thelonious Monk was one of the most original and influential jazz musicians the world has ever seen. VIP Mary Lou Williams credits him with starting the beret-and-shades-wearing hipster style, and his song "Bip Bop" (aka "Fifty-Second Street Theme") gave rise to the name Bebop for the free-form style of jazz he helped create. Other well-loved Monk tunes include 'Round Midnight, Straight No Chaser, and Epistrophy.

Marijuana use was "as common as tobacco" among jazz musicians of New York in the 1930s and 40s, according to Robin D.G. Kelley's 2009 book, Thelonius Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, NY). During the legendary Minton's sessions that gave birth to bebop circa 1941, pianist Al Tinney recalled to Kelley several occasions when some of the guys "would go out and get a little high, and they would come back and they didn't know what they were playing some of the time. They would say 'Where we at?' or 'What channel is it?' They forgot what tunes they were playing at particular times."

Kelley recounts that club owners encouraged musicians to "run a tab" for alcohol, which was deducted from their pay. Narcotics and other illegal drugs were "readily available." Although unionized, musicians were expected to play four nightly sets, each for over an hour. Some gigs did not end to 4 am. Bassist Red Callender said in New York at the time, "During our breaks we'd go out the back door to the alley, stand around drinking, smoking weed, chewing bennies---anything to keep going because the gig was so long."

Thelonious was first arrested for reefer in D.C. on May 19, 1943. On June 28, 1948, he was again arrested for possessing a small bag of marijuana outside of The Roost. It was a few weeks after he played a prestigious charity gig in Harlem headlined by Nat "King" Cole and featuring Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin and Zero Mostel. Monk served 30 days in jail for the bust and lost his gig at the Roost. In 1951, according to Kelley, he took a rap for Bud Powell, who threw a bag of heroin at Monk's feet as police approached the car they were in.

Robbed of his legacy by ill-informed critics like Leonard Feather, and hurt by his pot busts, Monk struggled with money throughout his life, often turning to harder drugs for comfort. Monk's wife Nellie said in a 2002 interview that she also indulged in alcohol and reefer, but eschewed harder drugs and did her best to keep them away from Thelonius. He may have had psychological problems, or just an artistic temperament. With a reputation as a kind of wild man, he gave his audiences what they came for, dancing about on stage for them. Later in life, he endured shock therapy while in rehab.

Thelonious Monk is one of only five jazz musicians to be featured on the cover of Time magazine (the other four being VIP Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis, and Dave Brubeck). In 1993, he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2006, Monk was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation. A search for his name on Google yields 1.2 million results.

Pianist/composer Thelonious Monk is pictured in a February 28, 1959 image at Town Hall in New York. (UPI Photo/Courtesy of the heirs of W. Eugene Smith and the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona)

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