Sometimes BoFN subjects surprise because what is assumed to be an assumed name turns out to be real. Such is the case with Thelonious Sphere Monk.
Monk is the family name. Thelonious is the given name. (It was initially misspelled either “Thelious” or “Thelius” depending on how one deciphered the scrawl on Monk’s birth certificate.) And Sphere comes from Thelonious’s maternal grandfather Sphere Batts.
Monk’s name is not just real, but uncannily appropriate. So much so that I just ransacked King Dave’s “Funny Name Theory” to find the right theorem. There’s nothing there, so I guess I have to work out the proofs myself.
If you heard Monk’s name for the first time and did word association you might come up with a list like this: scholastic, intellectual, geometric, mathematical, planetary, cosmic, monastic, spiritual, contemplative, silent, austere, ascetic, basic, spare, minimalist . . .
That is Monk all over. Thus, we can formulate a new theorem:
The Thelonious Monk Self-Description Prescription Prediction:
The funny birth name of a creative innovator will predict the creative innovation of the creative innovator.
Monk is to jazz what Van Gough is to painting, Kafka or Flannery O’Connor are to fiction, William Blake is to poetry. All of them wielded what seemed like rough, spare strokes to realize a vision totally outside the box, pared down to bare essentials yet rising to inter-planetary heights. And while none of them got runaway popular success in their lifetimes, we can’t imagine imagine jazz, painting, fiction, or British poetry (respectively) without them.
What would jazz be without “‘Round Midnight,” “Straight No Chaser,” “Blue Monk,” “Monk’s Dream,” “Monk’s Mood,” “Misterioso,” “Epistrophy,” or “Well, You Needn’t”?
Though a quasi-informed jazz buff, I wrongly associated Monk with the Beatnik era and cool jazz. I learned in Candace Allen’s excellent retrospective that Monk was a foundational force in the bebop era of the 1940s, making his music even more remarkable. As the sub-header for Allen’s piece puts it, “He played angular and slow when the fashion was for fast and sun-drenched.”
To be honest, I never completely adjusted to Monk’s playing, and appreciate Monk’s genius most when his standards are played by other greats, especially Miles. But according to Allen, Miles himself had similar views.
Even a collaborator such as Miles Davis asked why Monk persisted with the weird chord changes that just sounded wrong. But to Monk, his chords weren’t weird, they were the logical result of countless hours of musical exploration.
True to his monastic name, finally there is silence. Allen again:
For Monk, silence was at once muse and the centre of his gravity . . . . It’s Monk’s encyclopaedic and joyous considerations of silence that secure his place in the pantheon of past, present and future improvisational music as much as his jewel-faceted tunes and mould breaking/remaking harmonics.
UPDATE!!! The Thelonious Monk Theorem has been peer reviewed by King Dave hisself and has earned a slot on prestigious The Funny Name Theory page. It’s a dream come true, folks!